Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Five Faves For 2023

 When I first began writing at this website, I posted things like this often.  I was covering the conference that SFA was playing in at the time (Southland) as much as I was our own club.  Broadcast opportunities emerged and the writing from a wider perspective narrowed a little, but it’s fun to return to an investigation of players and programs that we compete against in the WAC.  As teams came to Nacogdoches and as I travelled to do radio delivery of all our road games, a set of favorite (non-SFA) players began to bubble up in my head.  This post could be even longer, but here are five of my personal favorite players in the WAC and my reactions to watching them play in recent seasons.

Brianna Ford, UTA (OH, SR)

Ford is truly amazing.  A strong argument can be made for Tatum Parrott at Grand Canyon for the title of top outside hitter in the conference.  But, consider this, if you rank all the outsides in the WAC in kills per set, total kills, attack percentage, digs per set, blocks per set, and aces per set and then average up these ranks, Ford comes out ahead.  In particular, Ford has the statistical edge on defense where she posted 288 digs (2.74/set) and 87 blocks (.83 b/s).  Ford was just two total digs shy of having AVERAGED a double-double per match.  She fell one block shy of a triple-double just last week against CBU.  She was so hot in October that she went the entire month with 15 or more kills in every match and had seven double-doubles among the eight matches she played including two matches of 20+ kills.  The ball just sounds different coming off her hands. She’s one of the few players in the conference that can literally take over a match and place her entire team on her back.  Rarely do players impress me so much that I would walk into a crowd of opposing fans just to drop complements, but that’s exactly what I did the night UTA came to Nacogdoches.  Well after the match, I went out to my car in the parking lot which was parked adjacent to the UTA team bus.  I saw several people standing in a crowd, two of which were wearing “Ford 14” T-shirt jerseys.  Assuming these were relatives (they were), I walked right up to them, introduced myself and gushed about how Ford was my favorite non-SFA OH in the WAC.  What a fabulous career that includes over 1200 kills, 272 blocks and an overall mark of 3.30 kills/set.  I’m going to soak up watching Ford play in the WAC Tournament because I’ll truly miss keeping track of her when she’s done.


Klaire Mitchell, Grand Canyon (S, SR)

Do yourself a favor and just go Google “Klaire Mitchell ballerina”.  Mitchell is one of the most athletic setters I have seen in years. In this age of mid-major volleyball gravitating more and more to the 6-2 offense, a 5’7” setter has to be very, very special to run a one setter offense at a program as steady as that of Grand Canyon’s.  But that’s Mitchell – every bit the part:  graceful, technically proficient, emotional yet under control, commanding and always leading.  I just can’t say enough.  I’ve watched her each of these three years SFA has been in the WAC with complete awe.  Of course, the resume is there:  WAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, then two consecutive years of being chosen Setter of the Year and she gets my unofficial vote for that title again in 2023.  As I evaluated players for my All-WAC lists published earlier this week, I kept thinking back to many of GCU’s players – specifically Strasser, Uhlenhop and Lifgren.  Each of their numbers were higher than I realized.  At first glance, I was a little surprised that I wasn’t aware of this, but then I chuckled to myself and realized that it was Mitchell at the core of this.  Klaire Mitchell is what makes this team go and those “under the radar” players are made better by Mitchell’s quarterbacking.  People who know me well are aware that my favorite setter “type” is the 6’1” towering and often attacking setter that runs a 5-1 offense.  I’ll admit that the VERY first time I saw Mitchell live I furled my brow and thought: 5’7” setter running this offense? Really?  YES.  My doubts lasted only about one full rotation around the floor and then I became a huge fan.  Mitchell is in the Top 10 among active NCAA Division I setters for career assists with a ridiculous 4400+ to her credit.  She plays the position both intellectually and artistically.  The definition of grace under pressure, Mitchell has long been my favorite opposing setter and I’ll be sad to see her finish her amazing career.


Madeline Guffy, ACU (S, JR)

Sticking with the setter position in this list of favorites, here is my pick for the most underrated player in the WAC.  Guffy forced herself into a 6-2 timeshare with longtime ACU setter Madison Rohre in her first season as a Wildcat.  Former ACU head coach Alisa Blair, a personal friend and former assistant coach with us at SFA clued me in to her early in 2022.  This year, the steps forward were nothing short of phenomenal.  She’s one of two players on this list last (the other being Knudsen) that when I saw her play live in 2023, I thought “Woah… this gal has REALLY improved”.  When ACU came to SFA last month, the team as a whole didn’t play all that well.  Calling the match, that gave me a chance to isolate on Guffy a little bit and I remember thinking how much more fluid while still being technically sound she looked compared to matches last year.  She makes some fantastic decisions and has great hands in delivering the ball.  While possibly miscast as a 5-1 setter, ACU trusted her leadership and decision making so much that for the majority of this season, Guffy has run the Wildcat offense by herself.  Honestly, if she had a stronger cast of hitters to dish to, I think she’d garner more attention.  ACU is lacking in offensive punch – especially on the pins - where the team tends to become error prone.  The Wildcats come into the 2023 WAC Tournament limping a bit having lost eight of nine, but trust me, I will never, ever, ever forget 2017. Because I know what Guffy can do running an offense, this first match is one that those of us that have been around the SFA program for years are MOST DEFINITELY not looking past.  Luanna Emiliano (UTRGV) still has a leg up on her going into their respective senior seasons in 2024, but Guffy is most definitely one to watch.


Matti Theurer, Tarleton (L, JR)

I repeatedly let people know that my favorite part of the game is floor defense.  I love, love, love back row defense, so I always have a libero in my sights for lists like this.  You have to love stories like Theurer’s.  For two years, Theurer earned increasingly more important, but still rather subdued roles for the Texans.  Stuck behind libero Ana Costas, Theurer had to bide her time until this year when she earned the jersey.  She prepped at Canyon HS in New Braunfels which has actually produced several back row collegiate players in the last few years.  So, the pedigree was always there.  This year, she has really blossomed and with Hoang stepping aside here in Nacogdoches, Theurer might be a dark horse for top libero in the WAC going into next year.  She’ll likely go over 500 digs for the season on Thursday and that should be good enough for Top 40 in the nation.  Lately, Tarleton has shown a lot of attitude.  That win over Grand Canyon earlier this month really has the Texans believing they can surprise people in this years’ WAC Tournament.  As a team, they have quality at just about every position.  They really are a well-balanced club and the anchor on their back row is clearly Theurer both in terms of leadership and quality play.  I had already made her a pick on my All-Tournament lists published here at the blog before the season ending match between ACU and Tarleton.  Then, I sat on the front row in our team meeting room here in the hotel watching the match while Theurer amassed a career high 29 digs.  Thanks for making me look smart in front of my team, Matti.  I appreciate it and you’ve got a fan in Nacogdoches that loves your play.  Back row rules, man.  Back row RULES.


Kennedi Knudsen, Utah Tech (OH, SO)

The only newcomer to the WAC on this list and the only one that won’t be playing in the 2023 WAC Volleyball Tournament.  Let’s just get right to it:  I had never seen Knudsen live before calling the SFA/Utah Tech match on radio earlier this season.  I had done my homework; I knew who she was and what kind of numbers she had been putting up.  I had seen some video.  But DANG... then we get to warm-ups and I start watching her hit.  I’m telling you; she was the most impressive hitter I saw in pre-game warmups this entire season.  Like the aforementioned Ford, the ball just sounds different coming off her hands.  This gal can sky.  She was jumping out of the gym and slamming balls to the floor like a human highlight film.  Now granted, this was just warmups, but dudes, I’m telling you – it was intimidating.  That night she posted a double-double with 16 kills and 11 digs and while she only completely unleashed a time or two, my spotting sheet had her name circled in about four different colors of ink.  She must have wanted to make a statement as the season ended because in her final match of the year against Utah Valley, she threw down 25 kills on 40 swings while hitting .400.  On the bus ride to catch the plane to Phoenix, I mentioned Knudsen to head coach Debbie Humphreys citing the 25 kill outburst.  Humphreys reaction was swift: “That girl’s a problem.”  Indeed, Kennedi Knudsen is a problem.  A problem for the WAC for the next two seasons.  The Trailblazers had a down season overall, but I love identifying stud players on teams that overall haven’t quite hit their stride yet.  That’s Knudsen.  She’s my favorite player you don’t know about – YET.  Is this blog allowed to NIL sponsor an opponent athlete?  Nah, guess not.  But no matter… I’m starting the Kennedi Knudsen fan club and when she blows up these last two years you can thank me later. Behind Avery Shewell of Utah Valley, I think Knudsen is the best young OH in the league.  Just look at the outside hitters I had on my All-WAC picks list above her:  Parrott, Ford, Rola, Lepescu and Bilby are all juniors or seniors.  For that matter, so are all the OH’s that I gave an honorable mention.  As far as players with less than two years in the league, it’s Shewell, then Knudsen.  Buy now while the shares are low.