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.