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.