Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Life Takes You In Circles

I came to Baylor as an undergraduate in the Fall of 1987.  While a student here, I had to take four P.E. credits and so my sophomore year I took a one hour course in volleyball.  My roommate and eventual best man in my wedding took the class with me and it was an absolute blast.  We had played volleyball recreationally as high school athletes in other sports and even occasionally travelled to beach tournaments in Galveston to play.  By no means was I skilled at the game, but the one hour volleyball class didn’t teach me anything that I didn’t already know.  It was 100% about fun and not having to focus on calculus homework or being in a lab or writing a computer program.  Baylor Volleyball was in the process of moving from Marrs McLean Gym in the center of campus to a newly constructed facility out on the edge of campus named the Ferrell Center.

My Baylor graduation ceremony in May of 1991 was in the Ferrell Center.  A few short months later, I was married, moved to Dallas, and had begun graduate school at SMU and a new phase of my life had begun.  Imagine what my 22 year old self would have replied if some stranger had pulled me aside that graduation day and said:

“You’ll be back here one day in the winter of 2019 and again in 2022 – some thirty years from now – and you’ll be calling an NCAA Volleyball match for the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Volleyball team from Nacogdoches.  Calling the match, you’ll sit within fifty feet of where you sat today waiting for your own name to be called. It will be one of 225 volleyball matches that you will have worked on television and/or radio”

I would have laughed.  I would have told the stranger that he or she needed to get serious about quitting drugs and maybe they should consider finding Jesus because they certainly weren’t talking about me.

Yet here we are.

Circles.  Life goes in circles. 

I’m someone who is REALLY pensive when I am physically back in the same spot – the exact same spot – that I was in 10, 20, 30 years ago.  The athletes I cover haven’t lived long enough to experience it, but they will.  It’s not déjà vu – it’s stronger.  You are PHYSICALLY occupying the same space you occupied decades prior.  It’s not just that you feel like you’ve been there before.  You ACTUALLY have been there before.  These “full circle” moments just blow me away.  They consume me temporarily.  As I write this, I am in one of those moments.

Why does this happen?  Why does life lead us back to the same spaces and places entire years, decades, or eras down the road in life.  Why are we allowed to experience such? I have a theory.

A circle encompasses a contained space.  The area within a completed circle can’t escape.  When life makes a loop like this you are forced to look at what is contained within.  If  one day I walked across the stage in the Ferrell Center picking up a diploma and then 31 years later I walk in the same physical space across the Ferrell Center court watching a game, then the question gets begged:  What happened within that loop in time?  Completing the circle forces you to contemplate that which you’ve encompassed.

In the 31 years since I began this Baylor to Baylor circle, I’ve done a lot more important things than call a collegiate volleyball match on the sports’ biggest stage.  I guess that’s actually the point.  My life is full because of what God has blessed me with during those 31 years.  So full that as an extra bonus in life I get to have the hobby (this is all really a hobby and not a job) of writing and broadcasting about college volleyball. 

People often tell me that I call matches so forcefully and confidently.  They’ll joke about how passionate I am on the air or comment on my expressionate tone.  There’s an easy explanation for that.  Every minute of this is a hobby for me – a serious one – but SFA Volleyball is “extra” in my life and I’m extremely grateful and fortunate to have experiences like the one I am having now outside of my main line of work. I’m not looking to call another match.  I’m only excited to call the current one.  I’m not actually working, so no one can really fire me, so I never feel nervous or anxious at all.  I can honestly say, I have never been nervous before going on the air.  Not once.  I mean, why?  Nervousness never emerges during moments of pure joy.  They are mutually exclusive – think about it.  Once the joy really fully takes over there is no more space left for nerves.

I’m blown away with gratitude and happiness because SFA Athletic Director Ryan Ivey or Head Coach Debbie Humphreys could walk up to me tomorrow and tell me that I’m not allowed to do this anymore and I’d still have racked up sufficient memories, made more friendships and laughed more times than I deserve.  It’s all gravy, man… this is all gravy.  I don’t HAVE to do this.  Instead, I GET to do this.

I enjoyed volleyball as a recreational sport as a teenager.  As a young adult, I began bringing my oldest son to SFA games to give my wife a break from chasing a toddler all day.  I got to know Coach Humphreys, her family, the athletes, and many other fans.  I was a baseball guy – still am – and knew the right people to get me the public address gig at Jaycees field in 2006 when SFA resurrected its baseball program.  That led to doing PA for volleyball in 2006 – another year where we made the NCAA tournament (and so that’s ANOTHER circle completed in 2022 if you really think about it). 

In 2009, I began writing this blog.  Nobody had to read it, but people did.  A lot more than I realized.  Soon, I knew most all the administrators, coaches, and many of the players in the Southland Conference.  In 2014, I bought a subscription to a radio service from a company called Mixlr and began broadcasting SFA Volleyball matches through the Internet.  No one had to listen, but people did.  A lot more than I realized. 

In 2015, SFA began broadcasting home volleyball matches on the ESPN platform.  At that point, I could say that I was on the microphone for the first ever SFA baseball game at renovated Jaycees Field and the first television voice of SFA Volleyball. In 2018, I radio called SFA’s first NCAA tournament match in twelve years from the stands in famous Gregory Gym at the University of Texas.  A year later, I did the same sitting courtside at the Ferrell Center here in Waco.  Now, in 2022, I’ll be on the air in the NCAA Tournament for the third time.

A kid at Baylor horsing around to get a PE credit playing volleyball.

A middle aged adult who gets to talk about volleyball on television and radio as a hobby. 

The same person? Did that really happen?

Oh, it did.

Circles.  Life goes in circles. 

I don’t deserve or even need any of these experiences.  I have no needs in life that haven’t already been fulfilled scores of times over.

I was in the Farrell Center in 1991 with life sending me on a new journey as a college grad .  I’ll be in the Ferrell Center in 2022 completing another one of life’s circles calling our match. 

When I reflect on what is encompassed within this circle, one phrase keeps coming to my mind:

“Oh, man. I really get to do this?”

Here’s a piece of advice:  Whatever you choose to do in life, do it with zeal.  Do it with passion.  Love deeply what you do.  Your faith.  Your family. Your jobs and hobbies:  Love BIG, because when life circles you back around to the same place at a different time - you will be so, so glad you did.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

WAC Tournament Final Recap: SFA 3, Utah Valley 1

 Edinburg, TX - SFA Volleyball will return to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament for the third time in a five year span after the 'Jacks defeated the Wolverines of Utah Valley University in the 2022 WAC Tourney finale.  SFA finished off the match in four sets (25-12, 25-22, 20-25, 25-23) and was led by the tournament's most outstanding player Junior RS Ielan Bradley.  Bradley earned the official honor after following up her 18-kill semifinal performance with 17 more against Utah Valley while hitting a stratospheric .469 on 32 swings.  Freshman middle blocker Izabella Ortiz and junior libero Haley Hoang joined Ortiz on the All-Tournament team.

The 'Jacks started fast in the first set getting two kills by Bradley along with two Wolverine service errors to stake an early 5-2 lead.  When second setter and freshman Jayden Flynn and senior right side Payton Cerny made their first sub into the 'Jacks 6-2 offense they each made an instant impact.  In her first trip across the front row, Cerny had four kills to pad SFA's lead to 9-5.  The right-side offense and service pressure by the 'Jacks smothered the Wolverines as the set got out of hand after Hoang and freshman outside hitter Camryn Hill each went on long service runs.  When Hill was finally sided out by her own service error, the 'Jacks had completed a 8-3 run and held a 19-10 advantage in the set. Utah Valley would score only twice more in the runaway frame that saw the Wolverine setters only post three total assists.  SFA would win the first set 25-12 as Utah Valley was never able to consistently run their offense due the service pressure applied by SFA.

Set 2 was tighter as early in the set the teams were tied at all of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8.  Two kills by Bradley, another by senior Ariana Pagan and a Utah Valley hitting error by right side Tori Dorius gave SFA the 12-10 advantage near the half-way point of the set.  After the Wolverines got a kill from Kalea Kennedy to get within one again, SFA went on a 5-1 run to open up some space behind the serving of Flynn.  Flynn continued her season long serving onslaught in the match running her yearly ace total all the way up to 48 by posting three total on the night.  The Flynn service hold got the score to 16-12 in favor of the 'Jacks. SFA's left side attack then began to balance out the massive offensive production from the right pin as both Pagan and Hill added terminations to up the score to 19-13. Utah Valley wasn't dead at that point as middle blocker Caleigh Vagana blocked two SFA attacks and squeezed in a kill of her own to bring the Wolverines to within two at 19-17. The teams traded left-side offense as Kazna Tanuvasa - who was held down in the first set - began to get hot, scoring multiple times down the stretch in Set 2.  With SFA clinging to a small two point lead at 22-20, Camryn Hill errored, but then SFA got two straight points on a Bradley kill and a Kennedy error.  That made it 24-21, but Tanuvasa got one last set kill before Bradley ended it to give the Ladyjacks a 2-0 lead at the long break.

Set 3 was also close throughout as Tanuvasa continued to put the Wolverines on her shoulders.  While she and Dorius got early kills in the set, Jayden Flynn again applied service pressure to build a 6-3 lead. When Flynn aced Freshman of the Year Avery Shewell for Utah Valley she was finally sent to the bench in favor of passing help from Haley Cuff.  Shewell would not return in the match and finished with just three total kills while hitting -.067.  The move to Cuff worked as Utah Valley knotted up the set at 8-8 and eventually took the lead by a score of 11-10 after a Pagan error was followed by another Tanuvasa strike.  During the middle of the set the teams traded mini-runs with four straight points by the Wolverines being countered by three straight for SFA. But then SFA got error prone as each of Bradley, Cerny and Ortiz missed on shots and Cuff got a kill to give Utah Valley a lead with the score 20-16. The Wolverine lead swelled to six as each of Kennedy, Tanuvasa and middle blocker Makayla Broadbent threw down kills. That made the score 23-17 and while SFA would add on a few more tallies from Wolverine service errors, the third frame ended with another Kennedy kill - her final total on the night ending at 8.

With the set score at 2-1, Set 4 saw SFA come right back and apply some early pressure creating a 7-3 early lead behind two kills from Bradley and one a piece from each of Hill and Cerny. Broadbent brought Utah Valley back with strong serving to get the SFA lead down to one, 8-7.  Utah Valley continued to rebound tying the score at 9-9, 10-10 and again at 11-11 using kills from Dorius and Vagana. A 'Jacks service error and a Utah Valley ace by libero Bryton Nixon gave Utah Valley the lead briefly at 13-11. SFA fought back with another Bradley winner and focing Tanuvana to error getting the score even at 13.  The serving of Flynn, then Hill and finally Ortiz each held just long enough to allow the 'Jacks to create some space earning a 19-15 lead. Cuff got a kill and block assist to bring Utah Valley closer, but Pagan got SFA first to 20 in the set with her 10th and final kill of the match.  Pagan then served the 'Jacks to a 23-19 lead all while Wolverine star outside hitter Kazna Tanuvasa got stuck in the back row. A Tori Dorius kill finally got Tanuvasa to click around to front left with the score 23-20.  Dorius struck again and then Utah Valley found Tanuvasa for a kill and the Wolverines were within one.  With the score 23-22, the 'Jacks found Ielan Bradley on the right pin to gain match point.  Bradley tried to end it in the next rally but was stuff blocked by Tanuvasa and Vagana.  At 24-23, Camryn Hill was able to end a back-and-forth rally by glancing a shot off the left side Wolverine block that fell just outside the sideline to seal the Ladyjack win 25-23 and the match three sets to one.

Overall, SFA hit .252 and Utah Valley hit .211.  SFA out-blocked the Wolverines 11-9 and held a narrow total kill count edge at 55-50.  Each team had five aces.  In addition to Bradley's 17 kills, SFA got 11 from Cerny, 10 from Pagan and seven from Ortiz.  Hoang and Pagan led in digs with 11 and ten, respectively.  Ortiz' six blocks were a match high on either side.  Utah Valley got 16 kills from Tanuvasa and eight a piece from Kennedy and Dorius.  Setter Abbie Miller posted a double-double with 19 assists and a team high 13 digs.

SFA will await their opponent in the 2022 NCAA Tournament which will be announced at 6:30 PM CT on the NCAA Selection Show which will air on Sunday, November 27.  When the 'Jacks travel for their first round match-up it will be the Ladyjacks eighth appearance in the Big Dance over their team history.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

WAC Tournament Semifinal Recap: SFA 3, Grand Canyon 1

 Edinburg, TX - A scrappy floor defensive effort from the SFA Ladyjacks propelled the club into the 2022 WAC Tournament Finals with a four set semifinal win over Grand Canyon on Friday night.  SFA saw four players post double-figures in digs with senior Ariana Pagan leading the way with 22 scoops.  The second four set win of the season over the 'Lopes runs the 'Jacks overall season mark to 25-4.  In addition to the fierce back row play, SFA out-blocked Grand Canyon 10-7 and also won the battle in totals kills tallying 65 to the 'Lopes 53.

The 'Jacks played from behind in the majority of the first set as GCU's Ashley Lifgren got hot early and caused problems for SFA from the left side.  Behind four early kills from Lifgren and two from fellow outsider hitter Tatum Parrott, GCU built an early 10-7 lead.  SFA would play from two or three behind for several more rallies until an ace by the 'Jacks Jayden Flynn and a kill by teammate freshman Izabella Ortiz would knot the score at 15-15. But then Flynn errored on a serve and Ortiz errored on attack to give the 'Lopes the lead right back.  SFA answered and tied the score at 18 and then at that point a side-out game ensued seeing the set scores tied at each of 19, 20 and 21.   Parrott then errored for GCU and SFA senior middle blocker Kelsey Harrington knocked down a key kill to get the score in favor of the 'Jacks at 23-21.  Grand Canyon answered once more getting a termination from right side hitter Melanie Brecka before tying the score on a Parrott ace. Ielan Bradley and Camryn Hill would get the final two kills of the set however, as SFA survived the first set with a minimum two point advantage winning 25-23.

The second set again saw Grand Canyon build and maintain a small lead early on. Midway through the set a GCU kill by middle blocker Hannah Eskes gave the 'Lopes a four point lead at 13-9. The 'Jacks would cut it to two several times during the middle of the set but then a Pagan service error was followed by an attack that couldn't find the rectangle and that gave GCU their four point advantage back at 18-14. Camryn Hill got a kill that allowed Haley Hoang to go on one of her many service runs in the match including an ace that got the Ladyjacks the lead back with the score 19-18. The teams then traded mini-runs ending with GCU rattling off three straight to regain the lead by a score of 21-19. After a Brecka error was followed up by a kill, the 'Jacks then ran off four straight points of their own to earn the first set point in the second frame getting up 24-22. GCU forced extras with a Lifgren kill being followed up by an Ortiz error.  Then, Ortiz redeemed herself getting SFA their second set point of Set 2 by thundering down a kill that made the score 25-24.  Tatum Parrott then kicked in two straight winners to give GCU a set point that was denied by a Pagan kill that tied the score once again at 26-26.  The final two points of the long second set would go to the 'Lopes as Parrott again rattled a kill down and then an Ielan Bradley shot was too long allowing GCU to even the set score at 1-1.

Set 3 began with Grand Canyon getting off to a 4-2 lead before SFA went on a 9-4 run that contained five straight points off the serving of Hoang once again. During the run, SFA got five right side kills - three coming from Bradley and two from senior Payton Cerny. The set see-sawed back and forth and included 11 tied scores overall to go along with five lead changes.  Hill held serve while Cerny added two more kills to get the 'Jacks first to 20 with the score 20-17.  After GCU got kills from Brecka and Parrott the third set ended with SFA finishing on a 5-1 run that saw the set come to a close with a Maddy Bourque ace to give SFA a 2-1 set advantage.

Much like she did in the first set, Ashley Lifgren started off the fourth set hot for GCU.  Lifgren finished with a season high 20 kills on 58 swings while hitting .241.  Her three early kills gave GCU the 5-3 advantage, but then Camryn Hill served SFA on a 5-0 run to take the lead 8-5.  The rest of the way, SFA would never again trail, but a tandem block by the 'Lopes Annabelle Kubinki and Hope Hanak-Harper, who had been inserted for the error prone Brecka got GCU within one with score 11-10 in favor of the 'Jacks. Another run by SFA followed, with Hoang leading the service line charge once again and the Ladyjacks lead build to 16-11.  Down the stretch, Payton Cerny was in on two blocks on Parrott to get SFA first to 20 and then the 'Jacks polished off the set and the match on a 4-0 run started by a Bradley kill and ended with a Hoang ace - her fifth of the contest.

Overall in the four set (25-23, 26-28, 25-20, 25-18) win, Pagan posted a double-double with 11 kills to go along with the aforementioned 22 digs.  Setter Maddy Bourque also posted a double-double dishing out 27 assists while scooping 10 balls.  Freshman Camryn Hill posted a career and season high 20 digs and the 'Jacks season scoring leader Bradley hit .310 while throwing down 18 kills.  Cerny was errorless posting 11 kills in her 29 swings (.379).  Izabella Ortiz went over 100 blocks for the year with her five rejections paired up with 12 kills while hitting .333.  Overall, SFA hit .240 and held the 'Lopes to .192.  

SFA will face off with #4 seeded Utah Valley who swept host and #1 seed UTRGV in the other semifinal match.  First serve on Saturday between the 'Jacks and Wolverines is slated for 7:00 PM with a radio broadcast available at this blog starting at the top of the hour.  The winner of the SFA/Utah Valley match will earn the WAC automatic bid into the 2022 NCAA Volleyball Championship Tournament.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

WAC Tournament Quarterfinal Recap: SFA 3, CBU 0

 Edinburg, TX - After a slow start in the opening moments of the first set, SFA Volleyball found their stride and never looked back en route to a three set sweep over #7 seed California Baptist University.  Junior right-side hitter and first-team WAC All-Conference selection Ielan Bradley led the way with eleven kills on 18 swings against only two errors posting an even .500 attack percentage for the match.  At times, especially in the final two sets, the Ladyjack front line was smothering of the Lancer attack posting a total of 10 team blocks for match, seven of which were assisted by senior Kelsey Harrington. Fellow middle blocker Izabella Ortiz showed why she was an All-WAC Freshman selection by downing six balls on seven swings while also rejecting three Lancer attacks.  But the highlight of Ortiz' evening was a service run in the middle of the second set that saw her attempt nine serves before CBU could finally side her and the 'Jacks out.  From that point forward, SFA was on cruise control and posted a .293 attack percentage overall while holding the Lancers to just .075.

SFA found themselves behind by five in the first set with score 10-5 in favor of CBU. Bradley and freshman Camryn Hill committed two errors a piece within the matches first eight rallies.  Slowly throughout the middle of the first set the SFA offense found its stride. Behind a kill and then block by Ortiz, two Harrington kills and one each from Bradley and senior Ariana Pagan, the 'Jacks got to within one with the score 11-10 in favor of CBU.

The Ladyjacks took their first lead of the match at 15-14 signaling the media time out and from that point on, CBU never led again in the match.  The Lancers committed a whopping seven service errors in the first set - their grand total on the night - to aid in the 'Jacks comeback.  Leading up the media timeout, Ortiz posted three more kills and a block.  The service game for CBU got particularly bad at that point in Set 1 and amidst it,  junior setter Maddy Bourque dropped in one of her three aces on the night and the 'Jacks built a four point lead at 21-17.  The set ended with SFA getting a kill each from a trio of pin hitters - Pagan, Hill and Bradley and went up one set to none after Pagan's ace ended the first frame with the score 25-17.

The second set was a complete runaway as SFA committed only one attack error and hit .455. After a Payton Cerny kill gave SFA a sizeable lead at 11-5, Ortiz stepped back to serve for the first time in the set. Ortiz proceeded to serve nine straight times to build the lead to 19-5 before CBU's Laura Walewska and Anna Jackson finally stopped the bleeding with a block on Pagan.  Cerny put down another kill and SFA had scored 20 points in its first full six rotations around the floor.  Soon after, a Pagan ace made it 22-9 and the 'Jacks polished off the set with a kill by Bradley and a CBU bad set to make the final score 25-10 giving SFA a 2-0 set lead at the intermission.

The 'Jacks onslaught wasn't done as they scored the first four points of Set 3 on three Lancer attack errors.  A Jayden Flynn ace - her 43rd of the season - ran the score to 8-2 and the rest of the way CBU would get no closer than four as the 'Jacks cashed in on 16 kills in the set while hitting .310.  Bradley came alive in the final frame terminating seven of her 11 match kills in the third with several of them down the stretch in the matches' final rallies.

Overall, behind Bradley's 11, SFA was led by Ariana Pagan with eight winners and Ortiz and Cerny finished with six each.  Five Ladyjacks hit over .300 in the offensive takedown and SFA out-slugged CBU 40-26 in the match kill tally.  The defense for SFA was also strong with WAC Libero of the Year Haley Hoang scooping a match high 13 digs to up her season tally to 513.  Maddy Bourque finished with 17 assists and moved into 9th place all-time at SFA in career assists with her total now standing at 1559.  Jayden Flynn finished one dig shy of a double-double posting 11 assists and nine digs.

SFA returns to action in the WAC Volleyball Tournament semifinals on Friday at 4:00 PM CT against #3 seed Grand Canyon.  The Lopes are one of the hottest teams in the nation having swept their last seven matches including their semifinal win against #6 seeded New Mexico State.  Earlier this season, SFA defeated GCU in Nacogdoches by a set score of 3-1.  The winner of the SFA/GCU match will take on the victor in the other semifinal which pits #4 Utah Valley against host and #1 seed UTRGV.  Radio for the Ladyjacks match against the Lopes kicks off just a few minutes before 4:00 PM Friday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Honoring Players is Always Good: A Look at 2022 WAC All-Conference Teams

I'm a big fan of the concept that what other people do well never takes away from your own strengths.  Giving other people recognition that they deserve never diminishes any contribution you might make.  Said another way, it's rarely - if ever - about you.

For 11 years in this space - and while Stephen F. Austin was in the Southland Conference - I created my own version of the Southland All-Conference Teams and released them before the official lists were published.  These posts were often my most read of the year and they almost always led to conversations among people both here at SFA and around the league.  My musings about HOW all-conference teams can, should, and might be constructed is well chronicled in the archives of this site.  You can click the "2019" link in the right sidebar and easily find the post to the 11th and final rendition of my Southland All-Conference picks.  I'll make you click instead of linking because the point is that those days are done and new days and new conferences are upon us.  But, the concept of conferences publishing "all-conference" lists remains.

In the WAC, coaches are asked for nominations. Then, those players that are nominated are voted upon by these same coaches and from the rankings submitted, the all-conference lists are formed.  I've long frowned on the "nomination" phase of this process, but I understand why it is done.  This years' WAC All-Conference teams were announced yesterday and in case you missed it, Stephen F. Austin was well represented.  Our own Haley Hoang won Libero of the Year and was listed as a second team all-conference selection along with Ariana Pagan.  Ielan Bradley was named to the first team and our young guns Izabella Ortiz and Jayden Flynn made the All-Freshman team.  All, of course, were excited and I've already posted reactions with Ielan and Haley earlier today.  See the sidebar for the list of recent interviews.

Honoring players is always good.  But, there's more than one way to do it and I'm not sure it can be proven that one way is superior to another.  Oh, I've tried to make that argument.  Again, search through the pages of the blog if you dare. I've tried to construct logic for how I always made all of those old Southland lists in this space.  My main observation has always been this: the lists are not teams - not teams in the truest sense of the word.  I'm not the only one that this bothers, but again, I understand the way that many conferences do this and I'm done trying to convince others that one way is better than another.  Instead, the spirit of this and all future posts like it is simply to champion the idea that honoring players is always good and that there is more than one way to do that.

Here's some tallies for you:  Of the 11 athletes recognized on the official WAC First Team All-Conference list there were five outside hitters, four right-side hitters and two setters.  Were they really good choices?  Yes, of course.  There are 11 great volleyball players on that list.  But, it isn't a "team".  There were no middle blockers and no liberos on the official first team.  To some (my phone actually semi-blew up to be honest) this seems to slight these other positions.  The second team fit the bill a little better: four outside hitters, one right side, three middle blockers, a setter and two liberos.

So, our grand tally among the 22 official honorees:  nine outside hitters, five right side hitters, three middle blockers, three setters and two liberos.

Of the 13 WAC Volleyball programs, eight predominantly ran a 6-2 offense and five used one setter in most matches.  So, the majority of our league used two setters and six hitters alongside a libero.  Suppose that we stick with 11 players honored as "First Team All Conference" and another 11 honored as "Second Team All-Conference", but required there to be two outside hitters, two right side hitters, two middle blockers, two setters and a libero on EACH team.  The final two slots on each team could be any position, because at that point you'd have the typical usage of a team running a 6-2 covered.  Get the idea? So, what I am trying to do here is to create an all-conference team that is actually a "team" - actually a team that could play in a collegiate volleyball match in their natural positions and run the offense most popular in our conference at present.

Now, the lists below are not simply a rearrangement of the official conference lists.  They are my personal choices for first and second team honors but under the restrictions mentioned in the paragraph above.  Last year, I didn't go through this exercise primarily because I didn't actually see each team in our new league live (because of divisional play).  This year, I called a match that involved each team in the WAC at least once - sometimes more than once.  

So, I guess this is my "1st Annual SFA VolleyBlog All-WAC Teams" the way that I did this for 11 years in the Southland.  Next year, maybe I'll title the post with "2nd Annual", but if I do it again, I'll definitely publish it before the official lists.  I had already done all the research for this post before the official lists were posted, but it just gives added reduction of bias to my picks if I publish them the day before the official lists appear.  Believe it or not, but in the Southland I got accused once or twice of actually influencing the voters because I would publish the lists before the coaches turned their rankings in.  I found that claim absurd, but started publishing the list the day before the league announced the real winners so that the voting would clearly be over.

You probably can tell from reading this:  I have a lot of thoughts on lists like this and one theory I squarely adhere to is that these are NOT team awards.  Just because a team does well does NOT imply it should have a certain number or even necessarily more representation than other schools.  Great players from teams with poor records should still be recognized if worthy.  This is one shortcoming I notice on basically every conference's lists - the teams down in the standings too often get completely shut out.  Now, there isn't room for every school usually, but again, I see no need to shut players out just because they play for a team down in the standings.

Here's my personal set of "teams" (2 OH, 2 RS, 2 MB, 2 S, one L required, plus 2 extra).  Below the lists are some honorable mentions, because again.. honoring players is always good.

Greg's First Team WAC All-Conference Actual TEAM

OH Sarah Cruz, UTRGV (My pick for Player of Year)
OH Brianna Ford, UTA
RS Ielan Bradley, SFA
RS Christine Graf, CBU
MB Izabella Ortiz, SFA
MB Allie Hair, Tarleton
S Luanna Emiliano, UTRGV (My pick for Setter of Year)
S Klaire Mitchell, GCU
L Haley Hoang (My pick for Libero of Year)
OH Molly Johnson, NM State
OH Tatum Parrott, GCU (My pick for Freshman of Year)

Greg's Second Team WAC All-Conference Actual TEAM

OH Kazna Tanuvasa, Utah Valley
OH Avery Shewell, Utah Valley
RS Tori Dorius, Utah Valley
RS Whittnee Nihipali, Utah Tech
MB Makayla Broadbent, Utah Valley
MB Lia Mosher, NM State
S Taela Laufiso, Utah Tech
S Macy Short, Southern Utah
L Hannah Baker, Sam Houston
MB Luisa Silva Dos Santos, UTRGV
OH Ariana Pagan, SFA

Others that get an "honorable" mention because "honoring" players is always good:

OH: Katie Birtcil (NM State), Grayson Schirpik (Tarleton), Arianna Bilby (Seattle), Makenzie Templeton (Southern Utah)

RS: Payton Cerny (SFA), Breanna McDonough (Tarleton), Melanie Brecka (GCU)

MB: Kate Hardy (Utah Tech), Margherita Giani (UTRGV), Madison Dyer (Sam Houston), Meredith Fisher (UTA)

Setters:  Many 6-2 Setters could be here.  I found them very tough to parse through.

Libero: Mykenna Nelson, Utah Tech

Monday, October 10, 2022

2022 WAC West Coast Travel Diary

This week SFA Volleyball travels to Seattle and Salt Lake City for its first ever true WAC road matches against Seattle University & Utah Valley University.  From the plane to the bus to the hotel to the court, you can read about all of our travels and adventures in this space below.  Be sure and also check out the SFA Athletics (@SFA_Athletics), SFA Volleyball (@SFA_Volleyball) and SFA VolleyBlog (@SFAVolleyBlog) twitter sites.  If for some reason you are not following all three, then go remedy that right now!

Most recent entries at the top.  Scroll down for older updates.

Saturday, October 15

12:22 AM CT (Sun., 10/16).  The bus pulls into the commuter lot and the first WAC volleyball West Coast trip comes to an end.  One up. One down.  Now it’s time for rest and then at the beginning of the work week we’ll begin to look forward to another key match and a chance at redemption at home against Sam Houston.

10:07 PM  CT  A stop at Bucees for snacks.  Brisket sandwich, drink, chocolate pie in a cup.  Don’t ague with me.  I know I’m right.

8:43 PM CT  On the bus and headed out of the airport!

8:22 PM CT  Waiting at baggage claim.  We wound up having to check 20 or so bags  Why some of us that boarded a little sooner were let through is a mystery to us.

7:51 PM CT  On the ground at  DFW airport

7:44 PM CT  City lights below as we are coming in for our landing at DFW

7:14 PM CT  Beginning our initial descent into DFW airport.  We’ll have to make our way to baggage claim to pick up all the bags that we were forced to check in Salt Lake.  All of our flights have been on time though and so that’s a huge positive.   After picking up bags, we’ll find our bus for the evening ride back home to Nacogdoches.

4:27 PM MT  All on.  Nuts.  About to pull away from gate.

4:23 PM MT  Almost all on.  Crazy stuff.  It’s just our last couple that they are making check bags at the last minute before the plane can pull away.

4:18 PM MT Some of the gals starting trickle on.  The plane is waiting for our party to resolve the luggage issue

4:08 PM MT Some of us got on plane, but some of the team was held back by security at the point of boarding and told our duffel bags were too large.  A handful of us are on with our large bags, but some are not and the bags are being checked.  Wow, American Airlines, seriously?  We were all the way at the gate!

3:17 PM MT  Everyone made it to the gate with about a half hour to spare before boarding.  Security line was long but they moved us through fast.  Not quite the same walk this time as when we arrived.  Boarding 3:45 PM MT.

1:51 PM MT  Headed back to Salt Lake City by bus. We’ve got a tight schedule so food was delivered to the bus right before we pulled out of Orem.  Everyone will eat on the bus  and then once we are at the airport we are hoping for a faster security check than when we left Seattle.

1:22 PM MT  Not the final outcome we wanted as the first set that we couldn’t finish proves to be huge factor in the match.  Utah Valley wins 3-1.  Everyone moving quickly as we have a tight schedule for lunch and getting back to the Salt Lake City Airport 

8:47 AM MT  Arrived at the gym. Utah Valley has pass and serve at 9:00 and we are on at 9:30 before general warmups at 10:00. Match at 11:00 local time (Noon CT)

8:33 AM MT  On the bus for the short ride to the gym.  Very ready to get the Volleyball portion of this day started.  Great match coming up today. Time to AxeEm!!

7:51 AM PT  Breakfast in the hotel lobby before getting the days’ schedule started.  We are not coming back to the hotel so a big pile of bags is stacking up in the breakfast room!

6:37 AM PT  Time for rise and shine because it’s match day!  Evan and I are up and moving ready to go to work.  I can only assume the rest of the travel party is doing the same.  We all meet downstairs in an hour to formally get this day started!

Friday, October 14

7:08 PM MT  We all ate dinner in the hotel lobby and SFA Soccer has arrived and is in the hotel with us.   Most everyone making their way up to their rooms despite it being fairly early.  We’ve got a long day in front of us and getting the win in Utah is the focal part of it.   We all meet up again at 7:30 AM for pregame meal.

6:24 PM MT We’ve picked up our food and headed back to the hotel for the night.

6:02 PM MT  Two hour practice in the books at the gym.   Great energy and everyone has earned dinner which is where we are headed next

3:52 PM MT  Players walking out on to the floor to begin stretching for practice.

3:33 PM MT  Headed to Lockhart Arena for practice after having a film session on UVU.   I think this is gonna be a great match tomorrow!

1:47 PM MT  That was quick!  All are checked in the hotel which is essentially on campus.   We’ve got an hour of down time until we gather in the meeting room for team discussion and scouting before heading over to the gym for practice.   Unlike at Seattle U, we’ll get a practice in on the match floor the day prior to playing.  No auxiliary gym this time.

1:30 PM MT After an extended lunch, the gals walked over to a nearby Target for some brief shopping.   The meal plus outing has everyone with their legs under them now as we get closer to afternoon practice.  Right now, we’ll attempt to check into the hotel early.  Back on the bus.

12:00 Noon PT  At the Corner Bakery Cafe in Orem, UT for lunch.  Absolutely beautiful scenery as Orem is right at the base of a large mountain here in the valley of Utah.

11:08 PM PT  After getting the few checked bags from baggage claim, we make our way to yet another bus.  Headed to get some food   Saw UT-Arlington volleyball about to fly out to Seattle.  Also saw the USC Band and several other sports teams. 

11:01 PM MT  Another very very long walk to baggage claim!  Wow!

10:29 PM MT  On the ground in Salt Lake City. Taxing to gate.

7:34 AM PT  Pulling away from the gate and on the way to Salt Lake.

7:14 AM PT Boarding a very full flight!

6:35 AM PT  After a long security check line and a subway style train tram ride over to the gate, players and staff are starting to arrive at our departure point. Always leave for the airport early, people!  We’ve got about a half hour until boarding to sit and grab a bite to eat 

5:28 AM PT Everyone on the bus and headed to the airport for Flight #2 of 3 on this trip 

5:11 AM PT  Gals making their way to the bus as we are scheduled for an early flight out of Seattle.  The hotel provided a grab and go breakfast for them so each player is making their way down from their rooms and grabbing a sack before loading things on the bus.

Thursday, October 13

9:57 PM PT  Postmatch interviews with Payton Cerny who hit .545 and Jayden Flynn who racked up her 7th double-double are posted to the SoundCloud site. Links are in the right hand column.

9:08 PM PT  Everyone back, finishing dinner and heading up to their rooms to back and move towards bed.  We bus to the airport at 5:15 AM, so an early morning commute awaits us.  The match tonight was strange.  You could see the team get into its normal gears about half way through, but still, there were some parts of the match that weren't overly crisp.  We did enough good things to win, but I think the overall level of play will need to get back to what we saw last week against Grand Canyon, and especially, California Baptist if we are to have sustained success Saturday at Utah Valley.  For now, we pocket the win happily and chalk up our first WAC visit to Seattle as a success.

8:11 PM PT   Stopped at Panwa Thai for pickup order for dinner before heading back to the hotel

7:45 PM PT  SFA completes the sweep as the 'Jacks right-side attack is too much for Seattle's block.  'Jacks now 18-2 and 6-1 in WAC play.  We'll head to pick up dinner in a bit and back to the hotel.  Everyone needs to be early to bed tonight as we have a very early flight into Salt Lake City in the morning.

3:39 PM PT  We have arrived at the gym and go on for pass and serve at 4:30 local time.   Make sure and hit the radio button in the banner above at game time (8 CT, 6 local time) for live streamed audio of all the action from Seattle.  

2:54 PM PT  Finishing up lunch at EverGreen where everyone got a large salad or rice based bowl. Very filling.  Geared up for the gym now.   

2:06 PM PT  Evan took us through video scouting after the gals got a few hours to do schoolwork and rest.  Now, we are headed to our pregame meal.  All involved are ready to get to the gym after having had a travel day followed by a practice day.

11:35 AM PT Slightly more serious - over the last few years I've been doing a lot more audio interviews after matches and especially when we travel.  I began doing audio interviews sparingly in 2012 and 2013 and have continued to add them to the mix of my coverage of SFA Volleyball each year.  The crazy chat with Jenna & Day was Interview #300 all of which are archived at the archive link above in the black banner.  It's a joy to have had that many volleyball conversations - most of which have been serious, but of course, some of which, have not been.

11:29 AM PT  The next installment of "Not So Serious" interviews features our managers Day Meadows and Jenna Robichaux.  At the beginning of the chat, Associate Head Coach Evan Amstutz jumped out into the street beside the hotel to play traffic cop in an effort to help the bus back out of its spot and get us going to the gym.  Evan's antics had the bus rolling, especially Coach Humphreys.  Tweet with Evan as traffic cop here and audio interview with Day and Jenna at this link. From one minute to the next, you never know what is going to happen with this crew.  Tonight, we finally get to play volleyball and go for another "W" to add to our list in WAC play.

11:08 AM PT  SFA Volleyball staff well represented in the hotel gym as several of us made our way down to a treadmill, weight rack or stair-climber to work off last nights' pasta feast.  The gals, of course, are resting up and getting some homework done before we head out in a few hours for pre-game meal.

9:34 AM PT Pass, serve and walk throughs done.  Headed back to the hotel for down time and study hall.  The bus rides around town have proven to be interesting.  Just saw gas at $5.79.   Beautiful inner city apartments one block away from tent cities.   A true mix of city life.  Narrow city streets tough for busses and large vehicles to navigate.  Weather has been beautiful.  Not a single stereotypical overcast moment while we’ve been here.  Time to rest up and then take care of business on the court tonight.

7:32 AM PT  A quick breakfast and now bussing over to the main gym where we will play tonight for pass and serve.  On the bus we did another “Not So Serious” interview with our wonderful managers Jenna and Day.   They get a little retribution on the players they help every day.  That will get posted when we get back to the hotel in a bit.  We also got to see Evan play traffic cop helping the bus depart the hotel.

Wednesday, October 12

7:25 PM PT After an amazing dinner out, the ‘Jacks are in for the night back at the hotel.   Tomorrow we get to play volleyball.  Remember that the match is at 8 PM “Texas Time” and I hope you’ll listen in right here in this space for the live radio broadcast.

5:16 PM PT  Family style Italian eats at Buca di Beppo is a great call.  Everyone having fun finding people to share dishes and sides with

4:46 PM PT  We spent a little over an hour strolling the Public Market area by the waterfront.  Lots of shops and places to see fresh fish being sold and bought.  Multiple levels of shops to browse.  Weather has been great so it was a fantastic hour of walking and looking around.   Headed to an early dinner.

3:28 PM PT  After a few hours of study hall and rest - I had a half hour power nap in there - we are back on the bus and in tourist mode as we are headed to the open air Market by the water.

12:39 PM PT  Lunch at Verve Bowls.  Smoothie bowls where the idea is to choose a base with energy, fruit and some form of juice.   Then topped with granola, nuts and fresh fruit.   I feel so cultured.

12:16 PM PT  Back on the bus after practice 

11:32 AM PT  The practice gym is a tad warm.  Ugh.   Gals got just under a half hour left and then they’ll be rewarded with a cool treat at lunch.

10:19 AM PT  The club is the practice gym at Seattle U, an auxiliary facility similar to our HPE for practice.  After a bit of time here we’ll head over to Verve Bowls for a smoothie lunch before heading back to the hotel for rest and study

8:41 AM PT Finally got a chance to post the crazy "not so serious" interview with Leah and Camryn right before we got on the plane at DFW airport. I present them with "not so likely to happen" scenarios and they have to pick a teammate to fill in the place of someone else.  It's all part of the lighter side of the SFA Volleyball family.  Click here for the chat

7:30 AM PT  Practice day begins as everyone is beginning to stir around the hotel.   Breakfast at 9:00 and then we get our first look at the gym for practice shortly thereafter.

Tuesday, October 11

10:06 PM PT After checking into the hotel everyone got a chance to finish eating their late night meal.  Some of the gals went through a stretching routine and used foam rollers to work out the kinks of being on a plane for near four hours and walking and waiting around airports.  Now, just after midnight CT, the last of us have made it up to our rooms to get ready for bed.   It’s been a long day, but it was wise to travel today rather than tomorrow when we need to have a good practice and film session to finish preparations for Seattle U.  Breakfast scheduled for 9 AM PT.

8:29 PM PT We arrive at the Honey Hole sandwich shop to pick up dinner before going to the hotel   We are currently one mile South of the area that was known as CHAZ, the self-governing zone that was established in police protest here a couple of years ago.

8:05 PM PT  Wow.  After another long walk through terminals we arrive at the bus to take us to dinner.  The bus is, uhhhh…”basic”.   But hey… we’re here and we are well…hungry  

7:43 PM PT  Waiting on a few bags that had to be checked at baggage claim   Most everything was carried on.  My duffel bag is filled to the top and I’m already wishing I’d packed lighter lugging all this stuff around today.  Headed to sandwich shop after we get bags.  Sooooo hungry!

7:03 PM PT  On the ground in Seattle!!!

5:23 PM MT (In the air)  oh my gosh, Yordan Alvarez just hit a walk off home run to send the Astros to victory in Game 1 of the ALDS

4:56 PM CT  The team is all ON the plane!

4:33 PM CT  Plane beginning to board.  Did another NOT SO SERIOUS interview with Leah and Cam and it’s fantastic.  Will post when we get off the plane.   About to settle in for the long flight to Seattle.   Everyone in good spirits while we wait.

3:15 PM CT  Through security and at the gate.  We had a LOOOONG walk from the security checkpoint to our actual gate   Everyone catching their breath and looking for a place to get refreshments.  Wow.

2:41 PM CT   Rolling up the gate in the bus at DFW Airport 

12:44 PM CT  In the first "Not So Serious" chat of the trip, Hailey Hunt and Kelsey Harrington battle to see who knows more about our destination states of Washington and Utah.  Along the way, we learn that the Washington Commanders pro football team is NOT in the state of Washington.  The lighter side of SFA Volleyball is already in full form.  Listen to this ridiculous interview with Kelsey & Hailey.

11:34 PM CT  We’re outta here!  Bus loaded and headed to DFW airport.  Everyone was instructed to bring lunch for the ride and assistant coach Madi Wilkerson already had all of our boarding passes printed out.   Now to find who got 31C so I can negotiate a trade for the aisle in place of my window seat assignment!

Monday, October 10

10:05 PM CT:  I've posted the audio interviews with Bella and Ari from last Saturday's win against CBU and I'm all packed up.  This will be my third time to visit each of Seattle and Salt Lake City, but first time in over 15 years and first trip with SFA Volleyball.  The 'Jacks will get in a practice tomorrow morning in Shelton Gym at 7:15 AM CT and then we roll out of town on the bus at 11:30 AM CT.  Before all this gets started, it's worth mentioning how blessed I am to cover this team and have an opportunity to travel like this.  I am not guaranteed each season that I'll get to travel on the plane trips, so my gratitude level is high on the eve of flying out for what we all hope will be a fun and successful trip - with two W's - out West.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Big Numbers Posted in Loss at Sam Houston

 Despite the outcome last Saturday not being what any Ladyjack Volleyball fan was hoping for, there were some seriously impressive tallies posted in the road loss.  In one case, we have a new record book entry. As a way to look forward to hopefully better days this week at Tarleton and ACU, let’s run down all the statistical accolades from that long five set match in Huntsville.  Strap in, there were four double-doubles, five career highs and numerous season highs posted.

Ariana Pagan: posted her fifth double-double of the season (11 kills, 13 digs) and tied a career high with four blocks.

Leah Powell: tallied her sixth double-double of the year (13 kills, 21 digs) and tied a career high with five blocks.  The 21 digs were one away from tying her career high.

Izabella Ortiz: posted a season (and career) high seven blocks and tied her season and career high with 10 kills.

And now for the really fun stuff...

Jadyen Flynn: put up her fifth double-double of the year with a season and career high 34 assists to go along with 10 digs.  With SFA running almost exclusively a two-setter offense for years now, the 34 assists were the most by a Ladyjack in a match in four years.  The last time an SFA player had more was September 15, 2018 when Ann Hollas dished out 35 assists against North Texas.  What is amazing about this stat is that Ann Hollas and her family were in attendance on Saturday in Huntsville!  Ain’t life grand?

Ielan Bradley: With her 13 kills against Sam Houston, she now has a team leading 171 kills on the year.  That’s more than she had ALL OF LAST YEAR (169).  She will eclipse her total points scored in 2021 sometime this week.  So, basically with just one week of WAC play done, Bradley has already equaled her total point scoring output from all of last season.  Amazing.

Haley Hoang:  Our libero got her second double-double of the year with 35 digs and 10 assists.  The 35 digs are a career high for Haley and that total represents a tie for the eighth highest tally in program history.  Hoang’s 35 digs were the most by any Ladyjack in over six years.

The Individual Match Records for Digs now looks like this:

1. Maddie Hanlan, 47 (10/27/2012)

2. OJ Olson, 43 (11/16/2013)

T3. Lexus Cain, 41 (9/9/2016)

T3. Stephanie Figgers, 41 (10/19/2004)

T5. OJ Olson, 39 (10/8/2015)

T5. Stephanie Figgers, 39 (9/27/2003)

7. Laurel Kuepker, 36 (9/6/2008)

T8. Haley Hoang, 35 (9/24/2022)

T8. Maddie Hanlan, 35 (9/3/2011)

10. Heather Stumbaugh, 34 (10/2/1998)

While everyone above would trade individual numbers for team wins, this list was just simply too extensive to ignore.  So, now you know.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ladjyacks Setting a Fast Pace in 2022

Entering WAC play, Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Volleyball is 12-1.  This ties for the best 13 match start in program history.  If you've been around these parts for a few years, then you know the last time the team started this fast.  If not, go look up the historic 2019 club that went 31-2 losing only to Arkansas State in Match #8 and USC in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Truth be told, the 2022 club is still a long way from channeling 2006 or 2019 vibes.  But the current team has set a fast pace and this break between pre-conference and conference play gives us a chance to examine the statistical arcs for the counting stats for each of our starters.  Before we get to far into this, I should clarify that I do not expect everyone on this list to hit their "pace" or projected 2022 final season stats.  Doing so would be unrealistic.  Minor (and major) injuries do happen, as do illnesses and at times players need rest for one reason or another.  But, this is an exercise in looking forward at what type of pace these players are on and as you will see - if some of these statistical patterns continue - we will be talking about new career highs and even a few new entries in the Ladyjack record book.

Let's go around the court and look at what the season statistical paces are for the key counting stats at each position entering conference play.  First, a small bit about the methodology here.  The math isn't hocus-pocus.  We are mainly talking about just arithmetic here, but I did have to project how many total sets the team would play this season.  When I just straight extrapolated from the number or sets we have played per match so far I got a projected season total of 106 sets.  When I individually guessed using my super-duper announcer, blogger insider volleyball brain, I got 107.  Ok, that made me feel satisfied that I was in the ballpark, so all of what you see below assumes 106 total sets played this year.  To get to this number, I also had to estimate the number of postseason matches we would play.  I factored in three such matches.  Last year, we played four:  two in the WAC tournament and two in the NIVC.  So, if anything, I may be conservative on my set totals which for an exercise in numbers such as this is probably a better strategy than assuming too much.  For the record, SFA played 103 sets last year.  Enough with that.  Put the math in the background.  On to the numbers, please:

Ariana Pagan.  On pace for 267 kills, 246 digs and 25 aces.

This would leave her career marks at 664 kills and 1146 digs which is nothing to sneeze at.  If Pagan even sniffs 200 kills it will represent a career high.  Previously, her best offensive season stands at 166 kills.  She's at 116 right now.  So, this will probably go down as the best offensive season of her career.  I'll take the under on the total kill count as I expect something more in the 220-240 range.  It is reasonable to expect Pagan to wear down just a bit as the season goes on and some of her offense translate off to others.  However, one good sign is that she still produced big numbers all during the heavy weekend portion of the schedule.  Now that we have settled into two matches a week, she should get proper rest and be strong for each match.  She's very vigilant about things such as this, so all the numbers above are still a distinct possibility.  I just think the offense will trail off ever so slightly, but a 200/200 season for Pagan seems legitimate and would be a huge contribution.  Her final numbers won't place her in the record books at SFA, but she will certainly be remembered as one of the more consistent players to wear purple.  She's the only current player that truly has been instrumental to the club ALL four of her years on the team.  If she posts 250 kills and 250 digs she'll probably be the viewed as the team MVP.

Leah Powell. On pace for 283 kills, 264 digs and 36 aces.

Wow.  If these numbers are even approximate to what Powell finishes with then the level of improvement here is truly profound.  Powell has always been a threat offensively since the first time she stepped on the court as a freshman, but all the numbers above would represent career highs.  So, there is clearly only one conclusion:  Powell is currently playing the best volleyball of her career.  It's scary what the end of this year might be along with 2023 if she continues to develop.  Personally, I think we are looking at an "All-WAC" recognition for Leah at the end of the year.  The advances in her passing, floor defense and serving are huge.  She's clearly a six-rotation stud at this point as she did everything she needed to do in the last calendar year to shore up her floor responsibilities.  I've been very impressed with her floor defense during the first half of this season.  She is so much better at reading attackers, positioning, setting her platform and contributing to in-rally defense.  Then, consider this:  Powell had 9 aces total in her career coming into this season.  She didn't regularly serve.  Now, she is tied for the team lead in aces with 16.  Powell isn't just a good player - she's a great player and she looks primed to blow past all her career highs and don't sleep on a 300/300 season.  I'm believing every one of the projected numbers above and might even take the over on a few.  It may be close, but it's probably better than 50/50 odds she joins the 1000 kills club next year - a high honor.

Ielan Bradley.  On pace for 320 kills and 76 blocks.

Did I call this or what? In my positional preview article at the beginning of the year, I wrote "dreaming on 225 kills with 70 blocks while hitting over .250 is where my mind it with Bradley".  Well, in addition to the projections above she is currently hitting .341.  Now, THAT's a breakout.  Bradley's dominance is as much a reason for our 12-1 start as any other you could come up with.  She's on pace for nearly 100 kills more than I predicted at the start of the season while hitting 90 points higher.  Now, .341 is VERY high, so I wouldn't be surprised to see that number come down just a tick, but if Bradley stays healthy she will take the biggest steps forward of any returning player in 2022.  You're looking at pure dominance and you might be looking at the top right side attacker in the WAC.  I think everyone knows her name now.  On pace for first team All-WAC.

Payton Cerny.  On pace for 216 kills and 35 blocks.

The offense from Cerny so far is pretty much at the same pace as 2021, if not slightly ahead.  We've seen flashes of her ability to take over a match offensively, most recently the 15 kill, .591 performance last weekend against Eastern Washington.  She doesn't have to carry as much of the offensive load now primarily because of the three athletes we've already projected.  The block numbers are down in 2022 as her career clip is 0.56 blocks/set and right now she stands at 0.38. She tallied 63 blocks last year and 52 the year before so it will be interesting to see if she steps up at the net during WAC play the rest of the season.  But, over 200 kills is a plenty fine contribution as is hitting .310, which is 30 points higher than her career average of .279 coming into play this week.  All in all, it looks like another solid season brewing for Cerny and if Bradley hits 300 kills while all of Pagan, Powell and Cerny go over 200 then the offense will have had a strong showing.  I expect ups and downs with occasional dominant outbursts and I'll take the over on the final block projection above.

Kelsey Harrington.  On pace for 64 blocks.

SFA doesn't use it's current middle blockers to generate a ton of offense, so what is important for Harrington and Ortiz is that they are highly efficient on offense and touch a lot of balls at the net on defense.  Harrington is hitting .347 in a very limited numbers of attacks and that number is right in line with her career percentage of .335.  The 64 blocks would be a career high after having posted 54 last year.  The fact that Kelsey is healthy, swinging well, getting just enough sets to keep the opposition honest and blocking 0.72 balls per set is getting the job done.  She had a couple block outbursts last year so eclipsing 70 blocks isn't out of the question.  She's steady, prepared and a positive influence on the players around her.  She's giving us what we need.

Izabella Ortiz. On pace for 101 blocks.

Well now wouldn't 100 blocks be a great freshman season?  Like Harrington, SFA only needs enough offense from Bella to keep the opposition aware.  She is hitting .331 and already has a team leading 44 blocks which is good for just shy of one per set.  If she continues to play in the back half of the year the way she did in the first half then how could anyone complain about her inaugural season?  I think with Bradley exploding and Powell becoming a complete six-rotation hitter and Pagan posting double-doubles every three matches, Ortiz's contribution has been slightly overlooked.  The veteran's scoring tallies are creating a really comfortable environment in which Ortiz can work.  Hitting over .300 in 350-400 attacks and blocking near 100 balls as a freshman?  You don't need me to tell you that will play.  When you stop and consider the efficiency of our middles and combine it with all the numbers we've already gone over from the pins, it is really a bright sign of how far our offense has come in such a short period of time.  When the season started, the defense was ahead of the offense.  But, I think over the last three weeks the offense has started to catch up.  Ortiz is at 1.52 kills per set.  That's an average of 6 kills per four set match.  If she and Harrington kill 10-12 balls total a night and hit over .300 then that's more than enough offensive production there.

Haley Hoang.  On pace for 604 digs and 28 aces.

Wouldn't that be cool?  A 600 dig season!  Read this carefully.  That's only been done six times in SFA Volleyball history.  The last libero to get close was Maddie Miller with 595 in that amazing 2019 season already referenced.  Of all the numbers in this article, this is the pace that I am most interested to follow.  Honestly, I just can't see it happening and that's no slight to Hoang.  She has been fantastic and the whole conference knows it.  She's won WAC Defensive Player of the week three of the four weeks we've been playing.  She's on a Libero of the Year pace, but I think it's reasonable to believe the 5.70 digs per set rate would dip a bit.  That's an astronomically high rate to maintain for 30+ matches.  An even five digs per set is a stellar clip.  If she finishes the back half of the season at 5.00 digs/set, then she'd finish with 562 digs which would be the 11th highest mark in school history.  So, I think really the issue here is whether or not we are looking at a Top 10 record book performance.  She'll need 564 to enter the record books in the Top 10 seasons list.  Any way you slice it, Haley Hoang has been the answer in the libero jersey.  Right now, she's digging balls at a level that puts her among the national leaders.  That's too much to expect to continue.  But wow.. a 600 dig pace!  Amazing.  She's been a revelation.  You know how I LOVE back row and it's been a joy to watch her operate back there.

Maddy Bourque.  On pace for 612 assists and 30 aces.

It surprised me to learn that BOTH of these would represent career highs.  Last year, Bourque had 506 assists and she had 27 aces in her freshman year.   Honestly, I think Bourque can and will play better in the back half of the season than she has in the first half.  Clearly, we are exploring with which setter will start off on the floor against which opponents and at what points in the match, but even if Bourque were to become the second setter in the 6-2, she'd still be on pace to have her best statistical season so far.  So, this whole exercise of projections actually made me feel better about Maddy than any other player that is a regular starter for us.  If she meets the above projection and then repeats it next year, she would have a career total of 2181 assists. The "2000" tally for setters is often a measure of a solid, consistent collegiate career.  You see that particular number recognized around the country from time to time. Now, the 5-1 setters wind up at the top of the record books, but you might be interested to learn that if Bourque finishes with over 2000 career assists she'll rank either seventh or eighth all-time at SFA.  That's a darn good career.  Given I really do think she's got more in the tank and additional steps to take, thinking of her as a Top 10 career setter in Ladyjack history is perfectly reasonable for me.

Jayden Flynn. On pace for 541 assists, 246 digs and 37 aces.

I'm gonna keep this one short and sweet.  If Flynn is even in the stratosphere of those numbers as a final tally to her freshman season then we got a STEAL in bringing her to Nacogdoches.  She has been way, way, way better than I ever imagined.  The weekend at Southern Miss is where it tripped for me.  She was all-tournament there and easily deserved it.  She was the setter of the tournament.  For all that to come together just three weeks into your collegiate career is impressive to say the least.  I'm holding my breath because she really hasn't hit that "rough first-year patch" yet.  If she keeps this up, then we are going really far in the postseason.  Just keep doing exactly what you are doing kid because it's blowing us all away.

Winning 12 of 13 matches is a great early season accomplishment.  It sets the bar high for the conference portion of the season.  Some of the above paces won't be maintained, but some of them might be.  In virtually all cases above, there is either a veteran performing at a career-best pace or a freshman exceeding her young expectations.  All in all, it points to another strong season for the Ladyjacks.  Just how good, just how many wins and just how far this team goes are all things worth anticipating.  We should all be grateful.  It sure beats being 1-12 and looking at the conference slate with dread.  There are a lot of teams that don't know what they have at this point in the year.  But, we have definitive empirical evidence that this team is good, possibly even very good.  Waiting and watching to see if it will be great is fun place to be starting WAC play.

And yes.. we'll revisit these numbers at the end of the season to see if my "under" and "over" hunches were on point or if the paces established half way through held up. For now, enjoy the ride.  This is a fantastic time to be an SFA Volleyball fan.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Old, Unique, and Loud: Reflections on Shelton Gym

I have written versions of this article dozens of times in my head.  Depending upon what emotion was surging through my brain at the time, the words in this ever edited post have ebbed and flowed in my mind throughout the years.  Shelton Gym, the inanimate object that it is, has elicited many feelings in me throughout the years running from disdain to elation.  However, as I reflect on volleyball in Shelton, three things bubble to the surface: that place is old, it is unique and man, is it loud.

Shelton Gym was the home of Lumberjack and Ladyjack basketball from 1951-1974.  There was no volleyball at SFA during that period and while I’m not old enough to have ever seen it in its basketball only state, I have heard plenty of stories.  Colleagues and townspeople have communicated the tales of lines wrapping all the way around the building multiple times while fans waited to buy tickets and enter.  On the weekend nights when it hosted a rivalry game, it was the feature place in town, the center of the campus and packed with students and members of the community thigh to thigh on the bleachers.  Believe it or not, there used to be windows at the top and on the sides of Shelton Gym and it hasn’t always just had seating above the floor.  Old photographs show the evidence of stands right off the side of the basketball court and then stair stepping all the way up to narrow rectangular windows where the sticker banners for volleyball are affixed now.

To hear the stories from the 1960’s and 1970’s during the early 2000’s would put you in disbelief.  That old place?  Once the sports mecca of East Texas?  Hardly, I thought.  I’d listen to the old-timers talk about missing most of the first half still standing in line or folks camping out hours before game time just to get a good seat.  I’d always leave the conversation thinking their memories were stronger than reality.  I had walked through Shelton Gym after arriving on campus in 1997.  I was a brash, young assistant professor focused almost entirely on my research and earning a good teaching reputation.  I could then and can now peer down on the top of Shelton from my academic office.  I’d look at it and just see a big rectangular piece of concrete fit for yoga classes and old ladies doing arm circles at ‘Senior Sneakers’ days.  You could barely see from one side of the gym to the other.  Dark, dingy, and if you got to the right corners and crevices, you’d probably be greeted with a rodent or two snacking on thirty year old popcorn dropped by some co-ed watching the ‘Jacks take on Sul Ross.  To me, at that time, Shelton Gym had no allure at all.

SFA Volleyball had called musty Shelton home from the inception of the program until 1999.  During 1999, the team played a few games in Johnson Coliseum.  I had a toddler son at the time and I attended a few of those matches with him to give my wife a break from the evening routine.  I had a few players in my classes during the 1999 season and they had invited me.  Those few matches at the end of the millennium spurred me on to become a regular attendee.  The club advertised it was moving “full-time” to Johnson Coliseum for the 2000 season and I wondered why they had not been playing there for years.  No matter, I was enjoying watching volleyball and sitting among the parents and fans with my son.  It was fun.  I caught the fever of “SFA Volleyball Family”, but I knew very little about the game at that time.  You know the type:  The person who knows just enough about a sport to be an armchair quarterback but otherwise their limited knowledge is dangerous.  That was me in spades.

For a good five or six years, I attended every home match.  I got to know Debbie Humphreys, her husband Richard and her two kids.  The oldest, Regan, was close to the same age as my son Jacob.  Little did I know that roughly a dozen years later they would graduate in the same class at Central Heights High School with Regan a standout setter and my Jacob the first baseman on the state championship baseball team.  I’d go to matches, talk with players, sit among parents, yell at referees about calls I really did not understand and have a blast. Like now, I’d eat too much popcorn.  I think everyone knows I love popcorn.

Then, after SFA brought back it’s baseball program and I got the job as their public address announcer at Jaycees Field, an opportunity to announce for volleyball emerged. I began working for SFA Volleyball in 2006. I guess I picked a good year as that is one of the dates that lives in Ladyjack history.  That year, SFA won its first, and to date only, NCAA Tournament game against Alabama.  At the end of the regular season, we had senior night in the Coliseum and Coach Humphreys invited me to the reception.  At one point in her address to the attendees she acknowledged my energy on the microphone and felt like some stability had been reached in the public address role.  In previous years, random students would do it with little emotion and often stumble over names and speak too softly.  While surely not perfect, I was confident, prepared, and energetic.  The players, coaches and fans seemed to enjoy the aggressive approach and many of them already knew me from past years’ attendance.  I had broken in and was determined to continue to do a respectable job.

This blog came along in 2009.  The first several years were an adventure.  This was a period was I was really growing in the game. But, at times I would get overconfident and write something completely stupid.  Debbie and I joke about that phase now, but I guess we all still do that from time to time.  There is always plenty to learn and most of us make the mistake of thinking we know more than what we do.  That sort of thing is especially true in sports where everyone has to always be an expert.

During the 2010 season a rumor began to circulate.  This was the last year for volleyball in the Coliseum and we were moving BACK to Shelton Gym in 2011.  Everyone was talking about it so positively.  Coaches, athletic staff, players – they all smiled when they said it.  Now, I have to admit that my first response was extreme disappointment.  I became the Shelton Gym contrarian.  I had enjoyed five seasons working with a strong sound system in this big arena where my voice would bounce off the 7000 plus seats forcefully.  The acoustics were good, the music and sounds clear and discernable.  Now, I was going to call games in that rat hole, I thought?  What are they thinking?  Why do they want to play THERE?  I thought about it far too selfishly, and….


I could not see what was around the bend.  I did not understand what was about to happen and how it was going to transform the fan experience on game day.  I was blinded by my own role and could not see the greater picture.  I’ve learned from that selfishness.  Things in athletics are far more enjoyable – even in the tough times, if you’ll take a wider view of “team” – a more comprehensive look at the greater good.  I wasn’t mature enough in the game to think that way in 2010, but yet I already was entrusted with a decent amount of responsibility and surprisingly, people were reading what I wrote.  I was getting to know a lot of people in the Southland Conference:  coaches, other teams’ players, officials, league office staff.  My preparedness and energy were outpacing my volleyball IQ, but by now, I was more than broken in.  I was entrenched and I just could not see moving to Shelton as the thing to do.

The 2010 season had been a downer.  The club went 12-19.  Only a five set win against Lamar on the final day of the Southland Conference regular season was able to salvage a positive after the team came into that game riding a six match losing streak.  We seemed so far from 2006.  I had little anticipation for the 2011 Shelton Gym startup after a poor season as we tried to rebuild and relocate all at the same time.

Despite my melancholy attitude, the 2011 season started out strong on the court.   A five set win at Georgia Southern was followed by three wins at a tournament in Statesboro, GA.  A 4-0 start and folks were encouraged.  The next four matches were split 2-2 as the team travelled to Monroe, LA and Martin, TN.   A loss in Denton to North Texas put us at 6-3 to start the year.  Then came September 9, 2011.  A 6:00 PM match at a gym-opening tournament against Texas A&M.  The gym filled.  The gym filled completely.  People were sitting along the rails dangling their feet over in a complete circle above the playing surface.  Fans were standing on the top rows and tucked away in the corners.  There was no room for rats.  The air was crisp and the dingy smell replaced by concessions and the drab had been subbed out for electricity. It seemed as though EVERYONE was there despite the gym maxing out at near 600 people. The official attendance that night in the box score was 533, but I bet that was an undercount.  Two referees that have become friends – David Goss and Ron Stahl - officiated the match.  One of the best sports information directors I have ever worked with and fellow baseball nerd Ben Rikard was the scorer stationed just down the media table from me. 

At the half, the Aggies led 2-0 and it appeared opening night would come and go without SFA winning a set.  But, in Set 3 all my doubts, negativity and disdain for Shelton Gym went away in a hurry.  SFA played well in the first portion of the set and nearing its halfway point the ‘Jacks led 11-10.  Then, a kill by Katzy Randall assisted by Paige Holland, an ace by Randall and two kills by Leslie Jackson were the bookends to a monster block by Sabrina Burns and Jill Ivy.  “Raise the Roof” had become a common sports saying by this time, but during all of that excitement I literally thought the building might crumble.  Johnson Coliseum had never sounded the same way as what I was hearing.  The fierce echo, the closeness of the voices, the sound went THROUGH you and it felt as though the crowd was devouring the court like some starved lion out on the Serengeti plains.  It was insane.  It was so loud and so instantly addicting.  SFA led 16-11 and down the stretch, Randall and Ivy took over with the former dropping in a set-winning third ace of the match and the later thundering down two kills in the sets’ decisive moments.  SFA won the set 25-18.

It was one of those moments where you just catch yourself. You just stop – frozen in time.  I remember just looking around in a full 360 degree circle to take it all in.  This is what others had visioned that I had not.  This is what they were talking about and now I understood.  Shelton Gym became ‘Home of the Ladyjacks’ for me after that set.

Now, the aftermath was substantial.  Yes, we lost the match 1-3 and the sound system in Shelton proved to be various shades of pathetic or incoherent depending on which hue you would like to choose.  That 2011 season was a lost one for me on public address.  The old elementary school style speakers hanging in the rafters were meant for bell tones signaling class changes not people announcing sporting events.  Ninety percent of what was said was inaudible.  The echo in the gym with all the yelling fans, squeaking shoes and voices just overpowered the sound system.  I had gone from state of the art to the state of confusion.  Fans would tell me they could not hear me.  We turned knobs, we reset frequencies, we changed cables and microphones.  We tried every configuration of equipment we could, but public address in Shelton Gym just was not meant to be. 

In 2012, the university bought a new set of six speakers and a new sound system for Shelton Gym.  Ten years later, the same equipment is still in place.  All of it produced only marginal improvements.  I was there the day the speakers were installed.  The company that put them in let me do the first ever “mic check” on the system.  It sounded great – until the matches started and the people showed up.  To date, the public address in Shelton Gym is barely passable with words often inaudible due to the placement of the speakers and the unbelievably bad acoustics.

Well, bad acoustics for public speaking, but in terms of intimidation of opponents, the old concrete edifice has proven to be simply perfect.  During the first several years after the return to Shelton Gym you started to hear it when you were out on the road:  “Ya’ll’s gym is loud”, “Shelton isn’t one of my favorite stops on the Southland circuit”, “We can barely hear ourselves talk on the court”.  Over and over and over opposing coaches, players and fans would remark about the gym’s unique configuration, seating, and volume.  I had families tell me that they would have to leave matches because the decibel level would hurt their children’s ears.

From 2012-2015, I continued to just do public address the best that I could.  In 2016, we began broadcasting on ESPN and so my regular PA duties got passed along.  That was a blessing.  I had learned so much more by that time and had forged so many relationships.  The penance of calling PA on a wonky sound system in a brick box of a gym was soothed by new opportunities to call matches on radio and TV.

But ever since that match against Texas A&M my take on Shelton was reversed. Yes, it’s old.  It’s poorly identified with basically no signage.  The playing surface has been redone twice since 2011.  The wooden benches are moderately uncomfortable.  Until this season, it didn’t have power on one entire wall.  The lobby is oddly cluttered with concession booths, cheerleading trophy cases and depressingly small graduate student offices with tile probably laid back in the basketball eras aforementioned.  The whole geometry of the building is just unsettling to this mathematically driven person.  The visiting locker rooms are not right off the court.  I swear that one day one of the light stands in the ceiling is going to fall to the court when an errant dig pounds off the bottom of it.  Let’s face it, on the surface, Shelton Gym is……old.

But it is marvelous.  It is unique.  It is intimate and for over a decade now, it has been home.

Oh, and it is loud.  Very LOUD.

Gloriously LOUD.


Monday, August 22, 2022

2022 Positional Preview

 With a successful scrimmage behind us and three matches in Dallas staring us down, now is the time to go around the court and look position by position at your 2022 Ladyjack Volleyball squad.  This post marks the beginning of the 14th year of articles, interviews and insight here at SFA VolleyBlog. I’m excited to begin again as I forecast a bit more writing in this space during 2022 than in some previous campaigns.

First, let’s recap what the club lost over the spring and summer.  Last season was the final one for standout MB Taya Mitchell.  This is a big loss as Mitchell etched her name into the record books with 355 total blocks, 62 of which were solo.  That last number ranks 7th all-time in program history and her 1.20 blocks per set across 297 sets ranks third.  Simply put, production like that isn’t going to be quickly replaced.  SFA also loses Val Rosado, who led the team in kills per set (2.84) last year as a freshman.  Val transferred to Florida Atlantic University to be closer to where she played her prep volleyball.

The ‘Jacks also lose graduate student and second starting setter Kodi Garcia (499 assists in 2021) and back row specialists Bryli Contreras (196 digs, 4th on club) and Alyssa Ortega (259 digs, 2nd on club).  Most of Ortega’s work was done early in the 2021 slate as her role lessened as the season went on.  The five named above were the main contributors that are not back in 2022 although there were others that played a more minor role.  So, other than right side – where the team returns three veterans in Payton Cerny, Ielan Bradley and Hailey Hunt – the club had spots to fill at every position on the floor.

Outside Hitters

If early patterns hold it appears the ‘Jacks will go into the non-conference part of their 2022 schedule with JR Leah Powell and SR Ariana Pagan holding down the left pin attack.  Both are capable of playing all the way around as Pagan is nearing 1000 digs for her career and Powell is much improved in back row duties.  Leah has everything it takes to become one of the leading attackers in the WAC this season.  Any step forward will probably put her in the “elite” category of WAC outside hitters.  She’s been both durable (199 sets played) and efficient (.249 attack percentage) across her first two years in action.  At 510 total kills, she’s on pace to go over 1000 in her career and she’s the odds-on favorite to lead the team in scoring.  After shifting to libero halfway through 2021, Pagan will go back to her previous role as a hitter and is always a steady presence when in receive or playing back row defense.  Waiting (and maybe not for long) in the wings is freshman Camryn Hill.  Hill has a chance to play a major role for the offense in 2022 with her cannon swing and polished set of shots.  At the very least, if Pagan struggles to score, Hill and Pagan can share a spot to create nice duo alongside Powell.  Then again, if Hill makes strides to her all around game, she can have a spot and Pagan could always spell Powell on the back row if needed to steady passing.  Point is:  Between the veterans and Hill, there’s three good options for how to anchor the outside hitter position.  While Hailey Hunt has been taking a lot of reps on the right side, we’ve seen she’s both versatile and quality enough to shift over in a pinch if something unforeseen would happen to the three mentioned here.

Overall, this is really a group to watch.  They will need to score – a lot.  How well these three defend at the net is also a reasonable question.  There’s not a ton of depth behind Hill, so this group needs to stay healthy and consistent to give SFA a balanced attack all season long.  If the club can’t get sufficient offense from Pagan, then Hill is going to have to provide it.  Otherwise, there may be one hitter spot that leaks enough to cause issues deep into the season.  For now, though, there’s a plan and three interesting pieces will attempt to execute it.

 Middle Blockers

Going into week one, SR Kelsey Harrington has the savvy to hold down one spot and take on more responsibility in the middle in 2022.  Harrington blocked 54 balls in 58 sets last year and hit a team leading .362.  She tends to get about 10-12 balls a match set her way and if six or seven find the floor, then that’s enough complementation to the offense as we’d need.  She’s a good blocker and great student of the game through preparation so I’d be willing to bet on her holding her own in one of the middle spots.  With Ashley Procious rehabbing, this opens the door for freshman Izabella Ortiz.  From where I sit, Ortiz gets my vote as the most impressive freshman during pre-season camp.  I see some footwork that needs tuning and a transition game that needs to match the speed at which we play, but the foundation is there.  It’s so, so early – but if I had to bet on the freshman that would make the greatest impact and set the tone for the most complete collegiate career of the new bunch, I’d take Ortiz.  I had my TV sidekick Brittany Castledine focus exclusively on her during the scrimmage, so I’m sure that I’ll have a whole new set of data to pour over on the middles once Brit and I get together later this week.  Ortiz has already shown multiple shots, both power and finesse and a strong blocking presence.  She’s an early fave of mine and it looks like SFA will use her and Harrington in the middle to start off the season.  Also in the mix is junior college (Ranger) transfer Jamyah Anderson.  Anderson has great length and stands 6’3” so once the effect of weight room conditioning really hits, she’ll be a formidable presence.  Anderson is a local product (Rusk HS) where she basically dominated in every female sport.  Out of the gate, it’s Harrington’s veteran presence and the inexperienced but loaded Ortiz as the primary middles.  Anderson is there to provide depth and give those two a breather if either has a sour patch of a match.  Anderson’s development throughout the season is important to keep an eye on so that she can continue to pressure the other two for playing time and push them towards consistency.  Veteran Ielan Bradley has played plenty of middle in her past, so if other things emerge on the right side or another veteran is needed opposite Harrington, Bradley could be switched over. But, speaking of right sides…

Right Side Hitters

On the offensive side of the ball the most encouraging thing I saw at the scrimmage was the absolute dominance of Ielan Bradley’s attacking.  She literally almost rearranged the face of a few Demon back row defenders and looked truly powerful all afternoon long.  Coupled with senior Payton Cerny, who has just returned from her own injury rehabilitation period, the right side looks full of veterans.  It would be a major boost to the Ladyjack offense if this were the breakout year for Bradley. Her 132 kills as a freshman were followed up by 169 last year & so hoping for a 200-250 kill season from the junior looks like the next step.  If there is one returning veteran that could just explode, I think it’s Ielan Bradley.  She has the capability to completely destroy defenders while also putting up a solid block.  The blocking numbers grew from 35 to 48 last year so dreaming on 225 kills with 70 blocks while hitting over .250 is where my mind is with Bradley.  Cerny has 466 career kills and 115 blocks across the last two years of being a primary starter, so as she continues to strengthen it’s reasonable that she’ll be plenty motivated to put up big numbers this year.  If Debbie Humphreys needs to mix it up on this side of the pin, she’s always got Hailey Hunt to bring in and carry some of the load.  Let me brag a little on Hunt in this part of the article:  Every team needs a Hailey Hunt.  She is SUCH a good athlete and great volleyball player.  She can fit on either pin if needed and always seems to log quality time when inserted for a struggling starter on a given night.  I absolutely love being around our entire team and greatly look forward to getting to know the newbies, but over the last two years of travelling with the squad, Hunt is one of my very favorite players to be around.  You just gotta love Hailey Hunt.  A gem.  Recapping, since I’m calling a Bradley Breakout and a return to form for Payton Cerny, I think the right side is a place to feel good with all this veteran leadership – and that includes Hunt.  But that’s not all.  Freshman Divine Muo is a quality depth piece that also could shift between left and right pins if needed.  Muo is from the monstrous Allen High School (largest HS in Texas) and won both academic and athletic accolades there so you know she’s got the volleyball IQ to play her role.  We need health here, but if Bradley and Cerny each take steps forward, the right side is well anchored.


Four setters.  Whaaaaat?  I can’t remember the last time we had four true setters on the roster.  But hey.. when you can bring in the quality that Humphreys and crew did this year, then you gotta build that depth.  Let’s just say this:  Freshman setters Jayden Flynn and Shaylan Wright are VERY well thought of by this coaching staff.  For the last two years, I’ve been hearing the assistant coaches tell me over and over “wait until you see these setters that are coming in”.  Well, now all of Trinity Funderburk, Flynn and Wright are here to complement the already polished Maddy Bourque.  Don’t underestimate how important graduate student transfer Kodi Garcia was to the club last year.  I think that’s a pretty big loss.  But now, we’ve got three people that can vie for that spot.  But, back to Bourque for a minute.  I think Maddy Bourque literally has one of the smoothest hands on her set releases I’ve ever seen come through SFA.  There are only a few players for which I can remember the VERY FIRST time I watched them practice as freshmen in camp.  Bourque is one of them.  I remember watching her in camp in the Fall of 2020 right before COVID went crazy.  I was instantly so impressed with how clean the ball comes off her hands.  I’ve actually heard fans and even other people down on the floor remark about it when we are on the road.  Bourque is amazingly technically sound.  So, mark it down – she’s in there.  Since SFA is committed to running a two-setter offense at this point, it looks like the second setter will initially fall to Flynn.  I’ve watched her carefully in four or five afternoon practices and of course, at the scrimmage.  There’s a lot to like.  I’m pretty comfortable with her starting out the year in that role.  Now, it’s really hard for freshmen – especially setters – to transition to the college pace and challenge without a few bumps.  It’s too much to ask of her to play 30 matches and dish out 500 assists opposite of Bourque.  If she does, then watch out because that means this offense is a whole lot better than what it projects as right now.  Then again, there is depth to fall back on.  If you listened on the ESPN broadcasts last year, then you know I’m a Trinity Funderburk fan.  She only got in 13 sets last year, but if you watched her in practice and in other settings, then you know she’s calm and collected.  I absolutely LOVE her court demeanor.  She just “looks” like she’s leading the floor when she’s out there.  So, I think the setter position is super key to our overall success.  Bourque absolutely has to stay healthy and productive because there just isn’t much experience behind her.  I like what I saw out of Funderburk last year and Flynn certainly seems the part.  Tied together with the depth that Wright brings and you can squint and see good things here.  Let’s not sugar coat it, though.  A lot of experience went out the door when second setter Garcia ended her eligibility.  There is hole at this position aside from Bourque.  Someone is going to have to step up and fill it if we are going to go far this year.

Liberos/Defensive Specialists

Hooray for the back row!  Everyone who has read in this space or listened to me on the air knows that floor defense is my A-1 FAVORITE part of volleyball.  I am STOKED for this back row that we have assembled in 2022.  I absolutely LOVE what I see in this dimension of the roster.  We brought in TWO starting liberos from other schools!  Haley Hoang has amassed 875 career digs across three years at Northwestern State.  Hoang came to NSU in 2019 and was a DS, but then took over the jersey in 2020 and 2021 and led the team in digs.  Evana Ramos led UTRGV in digs with 404 scoops last year as a freshman.  Now, both of them transfer to SFA?  Yes, please.  I was blown away when Humphreys told me that Hoang was coming in (she played with us during last Spring), but then I about lost it when I realized we were getting Ramos too.  I mean, how often do you get two starting liberos transferring in?  That basically doesn’t happen.  So, boom.. we’re deep immediately having that kind of experience added to the roster.  Right now, it will be Hoang as the starting libero and she proved she deserved it last Saturday at the scrimmage.  She was amazing.  So, Hoang/Ramos = excellent foundation to building the back row.  But that’s far, far, far from all going on back there.  We’ve got way more than those two that can dig balls, folks.  Do NOT sleep on incoming freshman Izzy Denton.  This is another one that the coaching staff kept telling me to watch for.  A highly regarded prep and club player, Denton projects to push for court time.  I’m really excited that a talent like her is on our roster because she gives the club so many DS options if they start to play with the offensive scheme.  Denton may start out just seeing occasional court time, but she’s talented enough to push the experienced back row players while she continues to adjust to the college game.  Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the back row also has returner Emily Ah Leong and a new freshman from my part of the woods – Spring, TX native Briana Raney.  Raney went to Oak Ridge HS which is just north of Spring HS where yours truly spent his high school days. Raney got in just a bit in the Saturday scrimmage, but again, the coaching staff has absolutely LOADED this back row.  Man, I love back row and I’m more excited about Hoang, Ramos, Denton, Ah Leong & Raney than about any back row we’ve had in a long time.  Crazy, crazy, CRAZY depth.

Final Thoughts

We haven’t played a match that counts yet and clearly what this club looks like in November is way more important than what it does in August.  But, for now, what I see is a good club that while maybe doesn’t project right now to be at the top of the WAC, should be in the top half.  The conference voters picked us 5th.  I think I might have put us at 4th, but we won’t nitpick.  I think where we wind up in the WAC tournament seeding will be a function of how well we take care of our own home floor against the teams from out west.  We play New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and California Baptist all at home. That’s three really key matches right there.  Amidst all that, you have to leave room for some freshman growing pains, especially on the road.  The home-and-away’s with rival Sam Houston and Tarleton State need to end with more wins than losses. It’s way, way early for this kind of stuff, but since I’m never afraid to go on record, I’ll predict a WAC conference record of 10-4.  That seems like it would be strong enough to finish higher than 5th.  But suppose Bradley breaks out, Flynn, Ortiz and Hill prove to be fast learners, and the team generates enough offense to complement the strong defense.  In that case, we could very well find ourselves advancing farther in the WAC tournament in year 2 as members of the conference than we did in year 1.