Nacogdoches -- After suffering their first conference loss of the season last week to Southeastern Louisiana, the SFA Ladyjack volleyball club bounced back with two strong showings to garner two wins going into the final week of the conference slate. The week featured one of the more cerebral matches in recent memory as the 'Jacks took down Central Arkansas 3-1 (25-15, 13-25, 25-22, 25-19) and swept a short-handed Demons squad (25-13, 25-12, 25-14). SFA now stands at 21-5 overall for the '20-'21 season and is 9-1 in Southland play.
The week at home was a total team effort as it showcased each of Coco Gillett, Kennedy Wright and Malgorzata Andersohn seeing a significant uptick in playing time. Each responded in a major way as both wins were engineered by different offensive looks. Coming into Thursday's match with the Sugar Bears it was all but certain that head coach Debbie Humphreys would orchestrate personnel changes to begin the match after watching the SFA offense sputter in the early sets in Hammond. Humphreys tabbed freshman Gillett to start the match after falling just three kills shy of a double-double in limited action in the loss at Southeastern Louisiana. Gillett's insertion into the starting lineup paid immediate dividends as her first seven shots found the floor and she continued her offensive onslaught all-match long to post 20 total kills in 38 swings hitting a lofty .438. The kill tally shattered her previous season and career high kill mark of 10. SFA steam rolled UCA in the first set behind Gillett's swings, but then the tables were turned as Lexi Miller of UCA caught fire and the Sugar Bears got out to a quick 11-2 lead on the Ladyjacks and never looked back in Set 2.
The first two sets were as opposite as one could imagine as in Set 1 SFA hit .444 but then dropped all the way down to .061 in the second set loss. Conversely, UCA hit .400 in the dominant second set, but then their offense stalled from that point forward. Amanda Beaton, who came into the match as UCA's leading scorer had sat down for a set and outside hitter Alexis Stumbough shifted to a back row role sharing a spot with Lexi Miller all while UCA turned the dial on their offensive alignment. Humphreys also made changes sending OH Ariana Pagan to a back-row only assignment while sharing a spot with Wright and moving freshman Leah Powell over to the right in place of fellow first-year player Ielan Bradley.
All match long, both coaches continued to mix and match lineups in a chess match of player usage. The third set saw both offenses more tamed as the teams combined for 13 attack errors. Pagan posted two straight aces to give the 'Jacks an 11-6 lead and SFA held it all through the middle portion of the set. It appeared as though SFA might run away after a Gillett kill and a Maddie Miller ace pushed SFA's lead to 22-16. But then, Stumbough went on a long service run for UCA which included three Ladyjack errors and kills by the Sugar Bears' Anna Williams and Beaton. The Beaton winner cut the score to 22-21, but kills by Gillett and a final strike by Pagan sealed the third set win for SFA.
The early part of set 4 was tight, but then SFA pushed out to a 14-9 lead after a 4-1 mini-run was started by a Taya Mitchell kill and then three errors were posted by the Sugar Bears. The five point margin held up as SFA went on another 5-1 run in the back part of the set led by kills from all of Gillett, Payton Cerny and Powell. At that point, SFA had their biggest lead of the set at 19-12. The match ended with SFA going on its third run of the match scoring four straight points behind a Cerny kill, Allie Hamsher ace and two errors by UCA to finish it out.
The dizzying array of lineup changes and rotation shifts during the match truly showcased both the depth of SFA's offense and the masterful players usage arranged by the SFA braintrust of Humphreys and assistant coaches Evan Amstutz and Alisa Blair. Amazingly, libero Maddie Miller fell just one dig shy of a libero double-double (but, keep reading!) with 9 assists and 14 digs. Gillett and Wright combined for 27 kills on the outside, and Taya Mitchell had a match-high six blocks.
Returning to the court on Saturday, the 'Jacks made quick work of an injured Northwestern State club that only had nine players in uniform. However, OH Addie McDermott and MB Reagan Lee didn't play as they were each still nursing injuries and so the Demons played the entire match without making a single substitution. They did this on Thursday night against Abilene Christian as well.
At no point could NSU ever get their offense truly in gear as the Demons could muster only a .146 attack percentage in the match that officially only took 66 minutes to complete. Meanwhile, Humphreys chose Andersohn to pair with Hamsher to run SFA's 6-2 offense. Andersohn was brilliant all match long dishing gorgeous assist after assist to both both pins. Hamsher finished with 16 assists and Andersohn 14 as the SFA offense only committed four errors on the afternoon and hit a season high .517. The numbers posted by SFA's offense were otherworldly as Kennedy Wright had her best match as a Ladyjack hitting 11-0-17 (.647) to go along with Gillett's 11 kills on .435 hitting. Taya Mitchell hit .625, Ashley Procious hit .750 and Payton Cerny hit .857 as the 'Jacks piled up video-game numbers on the Demons all match long.
SFA hit over .450 in all three sets, only committed one error in the last two sets combined, and in the second set posted a ridiculous 92% side out percentage on the Demons. Maddie Miller, who had fallen just one assist shy of the rare libero double-double completed the task against NSU by posting 11 assists and 13 digs in three sets. Pagan had 8 digs as she again was assigned back-row only duties and SFA continued their strong serving with five aces. The 'Jacks still lead the nation in total aces as their season total now stands at 154. Taya Mitchell, as she did against UCA, led SFA with three blocks.
Northwestern State was led by Breanna Burrell who scored on nine kills. Sophomore transfer MB Jaylibeth Garcia-Rosa was a bright spot on offense as she posted eight errorless kills and hit an impressive .667. Freshman setter Ragan Ward had 22 assists.
SFA now faces an all-important week as the 'Jacks travel to Huntsville for a Thursday date with Sam Houston. The match will have major seeding implications in the upcoming Southland Conference Tournament in Corpus Christi. Both squads will enter the match 9-1 in league play. SFA finishes the regular season next Saturday against a tough HBU squad who is also looking to make noise in postseason play. The 'Jacks will honor senior Maddie Miller immediately following the match with the Huskies.
The match against Sam Houston begins at 6:30 Thursday evening and will be carried on SFA VolleyBlog Radio right here in this space. The final regular season match against HBU next Saturday is a 3:00 PM start and will be carried on ESPN+.