The first weekend of Fall 2021 action saw the 'Jacks take on some formidable opponents and come away with just one lone win amongst their efforts. While two out of three would have been nice and a weekend sweep even better, there were still plenty of positive takeaways from the first three official matches of the season. Let's recap the weekend and prep for Week 2 by accenting some of the noteworthy accomplishments of the trip to Dallas:
Ielan Bradley on Offense & Taya Mitchell on Defense: Not Skipping a Beat
Bradley was the offensive star at the SMU Tournament with a team leading 31 kills across 10 sets while hitting .222. Coming off a freshman season that saw her finish fifth on the club in total kills and hit .266, Bradley looks ready to take significant steps forward in Year 2. Multiple times during the weekend she showed a variety of shots both sharp and soft as it is clear her court vision has progressed. She's got an intelligent approach on the right side and her versatility in moving to the middle when SFA shifted to the 5-1 against Pacific is just another plus. Last year, Ielan drifted through phases of starting and then not, playing in roughly 3/4 of the teams sets. For now, it looks like she's cemented as an everyday starter and one of the 'Jacks biggest threats. Taya Mitchell came into the Fall of 2021 with 243 total blocks to her credit during her two years in purple. Over the weekend, she added 13 more to that tally including six total against North Carolina and three solo in the win over Pacific. Despite not being as efficient on offense as we've become accustomed to, Mitchell is too talented to be completely denied making her impact. Her defense was on point and she appears poised to have another monster year at the net. The 'Jacks only listed graduate student with experience at SFA, her leadership this year will be key. With Mitchell and the younger Bradley anchoring down two of the front row spots, SFA has a strong core to count on going forward.
Offensive Combinations Galore
Expect these next three weekends to continue to feature a lot of "plug and play" combinations on offense for the 'Jacks. We've already mentioned Bradley shifting from RS to MB depending upon the offensive scheme. We also saw sophomore Leah Powell shift from pin to pin during the weekend. With Ariana Pagan in a six-rotation role, SFA can stack Powell opposite her in the other left-side hole and then pair her up with a DS like Bryli Contreras when her spot goes to serve. On the other hand, Powell can hit from the right with one of the setters and Bradley paired with the other. Averaging almost two and a half kills per set last year and playing in virtually all of the team's sets, Powell is another offensive threat to be counted on all Fall. She's only going to get better with the main question coming in how best to use her talents. Don't be surprised if she continues to float from pin to pin as the offense searches for the right combinations prior to WAC-play. Then, there's freshman Valeria Rosado, whom the club is REALLY high on. So much so that she drew the start against North Carolina right out of the gate in Match #1 of her freshman season. It's clear head coach Debbie Humphreys is keen on her offensive potential because we even saw Rosado play on the right-side a little down the stretch against Pacific. As she gets more floor time, she'll get more aggressive and the results will eventually come. SFA can afford to be patient with her over the next month due to all other weapons. Let's also remember that Kennedy Wright has the skill set to score on the outside, so I look for the second outside hitter spot to remain very fluid opposite Pagan during the next three week. Keep an eye on Wright - something tells me the numbers for her will be there once it's all said and done. The few times I've checked in on practice, she's been dominant.
Concerning the middle, the 'Jacks await the healing of sophomore Ashley Procious and in the meantime can explore with now healthy Kelsey Harrington. Also expect freshmen Kayla Grant and Temi Areola to get looks on the front row from time to time. Peyton Cerny, the club's leading scorer from last year, is clearly another offensive strength. With Bradley and Powell playing on the right, her playing time was reduced - as it is when SFA shifted to the 5-1. But, if the offense functions best with Powell opposite Pagan, then Cerny and Bradley become the two primary right sides - this was a formula we saw work a lot in the spring and it may be where we are eventually headed. But for now, Powell and Bradley can play two positions and that's why you see them out there in one form or another. Cerny's role ultimately is dictated by others and where the best fit is - that is, unless the sophomore just begins to take over on offense, which isn't out of the question.
The tournament part of the season here in the early going is a fantastic time to experiment with offensive combinations and don't be surprised if there are a ton of mixes and matches over the next three weeks. This is a positive overall for the club because it's clear that multiple players are training in multiple roles for maximum versatility. By the end of the WAC slate, we are going to need it.
"Debuts" for Harrington and Funderburk
Sophomore Kelsey Harrington has had a long road back to the floor and while this past weekend wasn't technically her Ladyjack debut, it had been almost two calendar years since she had seen match action. I have to admit, I was particularly glad to see Kelsey play. She's such as easy player to root for and her three aces against North Carolina provided a spark as did the four blocks posted across her six sets of action during the tournament. When Procious gets healthy, we'll have to see what role she settles into, but it was a great, great sign to see Harrington out there contributing. Many other players just wouldn't have the fight and determination she's shown over the last two years and all Ladyjack fans should be incredibly proud of Kelsey and her dedication and perseverance. We need her and she came through. Despite SFA winning sets while in a one setter offense, I came away from the weekend impressed with freshman setter Trinity Funderburk. With graduate transfer Kodi Garcia out ill, Funderburk drew starts on short notice and performed admirably. One of the things I was struck with is her court demeanor - I LOVED Funderburk's presence and demeanor after she settled into her opening sets. She just "looks" like a floor leader and while Bourque and Garcia may be penciled in to get the majority of the quarterback reps, you just HAVE to have a third setter that you can trust. For Funderburk to gain valuable experience in the first tournament of the year was a plus. For her to experience some success connecting with hitters was even better. The pedigree is there... and it's better for her to have the feel for court time early because as the season evolves you never know when she might be pressed into action at a very key moment. Better for her to have had some experience in true match settings than just practice reps. This past weekend may pay dividends for Funderburk and the club as a whole at some point down the line in the Fall.
Big Numbers for Alyssa Ortega
Freshman libero Alyssa Ortega posted 53 digs in 10 sets. No one is ever going to complain about more than five digs per set and Ortega certainly held her own in the jersey during last week's visit to Dallas. With Maddie Miller gone, the one spot that had the biggest question mark over it going into the WAC inaugural season was the libero. Ortega, so far, has done plenty to justify her wearing of the jersey. Do I think there will be times where she struggles? Yes. That spot - like a setter - is a huge responsibility for a true freshman. It's unrealistic to think that Ortega can libero for 25-30 matches without hitting some bumps in the road. But, do I think I've seen enough already to lead me to believe that she could be something special? Yes, again. The question will be can she respond to the things that will require improvement and can she make adjustments on little things at the collegiate level that will be required to be great? The quickness is there. The instincts are there. I've probably studied back row play more than any other facet to the game and I see things that tell me that she's got all the variables that need to be in the equation. She's off to a great start. We haven't seen her face adversity at a high level yet and how she responds and adjusts the first time it hits will go a long way to showing us how fast she can learn at the D1 level. But, for now, what's not to like? She's got the talent, moxie and aggressiveness that the position needs. I love her "take charge" mentality on the back row. You can tell she wants the ball and that's the attitude you need in your libero. I like what I see.
The 'Jacks are set for three matches in three days this week as we host the first of two tournaments in Nacogdoches this fall. We get started on Thursday at 6:30 PM as we get to see Lumberjacks vs. Lumberjacks with Northern Arizona in town. Brittany Castledine and I will have the call for you on ESPN+.