On September 12, just two weeks into the 2019 NCAA women’s volleyball season, Stephen F. Austin lost at Arkansas State.
It was an unexpected and disappointing four-set loss for the Ladyjacks, who finished the 2018 season with an unblemished 16-0 record in the Southland Conference and made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2006.
But something about that loss lit a fire for the 2019 SFA squad.
The next night, they swept Arkansas Pine-Bluff, holding the Golden Lions to four points in the first set. And the night after that, they won a dog-fight of a match with Rice, now ranked No. 19.
It’s that victory over Rice, which after losing to SFA went on to upset Texas and is now 16-1 overall, that has the Ladyjacks in the national conversation. They’re receiving votes in the AVCA Coaches Poll for the first time in program history. The fact that they haven’t lost since that Arkansas State match and boast a 19-1 record, 7-0 in the Southland Conference, doesn’t hurt either.
“Heading in (to the 2019 season), I felt like we had good individual talent,” coach Debbie Humphreys said. “We just have a lot of new faces this year, so I was not sure how long it was going to take to get it all put together.”
They’ve put it together quite nicely in the form of a 12-match winning streak after the Ladyjacks swept visiting Nicholls State on Thursday night. SFA plays host to Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday.
After the 2018 season, which ended with SFA falling in straight sets to Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Ladyjacks graduated four senior starters, including their top offensive contributor Haley Coleman, and lost starting middle Anyia Williams and defensive specialist Marisabel Torres to transfers (they ended up at Tennessee State and Houston Baptist, respectively). Over the summer, 2018’s libero Sabrina Monaco quit the team.
But Humphreys, who is now in her 32nd season at SFA with a career record of 713-340, said there was never any scrambling. She already had a big 2019 class and some very promising transfers coming in. From Tyler Junior College, SFA got both Taya Mitchell, a dynamic middle blocker from Rowlett, Texas, who has cracked the starting lineup and ranks first on the team with 106 total blocks, and Sheretta Hill, a versatile hitter from Sulphur Springs, Texas, who is the first player off the bench and made a huge impact in the Rice match.
Then there’s libero Madelynn Miller. The 5-3 junior from Lorena, Texas, spent two seasons at another Southland school, University of the Incarnate Word, ranking among the top defensive players in the conference and routinely frustrating opponents, including Humphreys and her Ladyjacks.
“(Miller) is absolutely amazing. She is so consistent,” said Corin Evans, a senior outside hitter from Katy, Texas. “She passed a 2.6 this week, and I was blown away, and then her defense, she gets all these balls up. It’s fun too to go against her as hitters because we know that she’s making us so much better.”
As for the returners, four starters are seniors, but only two — setter/opposite Ann Hollas and middle Danae Daron — are playing similar roles as last year. Hollas, from Longview, Texas, finished 2018 as the Southland Setter of the Year, despite setting and hitting in a 6-2.
“Ann is kind of a special athlete,” Humphreys said. “She’s a freak. She’s super strong, super dynamic, just great body control.”
Daron, who is from Crosby, Texas, finished the 2018 season with 265 kills, second on the team, hitting .346, and adding a team-high 143 total blocks. She also earned the Southland Tournament MVP honor.
Xariah Wiliams, from Arlington, Texas, graduated from playing that first-off-the-bench role to holding down a regular spot on the right side, playing the front row for SFA’s other setter Margaret Dean. She ranks third on the team with 136 kills, hitting .280, adding 86 digs and 26 blocks, two solo.
Evans has had an “up and down roller coaster” of a career at SFA.
As a freshman, she played back-row only and finished the season third on the team in digs per set with 2.62. The next season, she moved into a front-row only role before being beat out for a starting spot as a junior in 2018. Although she is now the team’s top offensive contributor with 195 kills — 10 against Nicholls State — Evans barely played last year, finishing the season with a total of 38 kills and 24 digs.
“It’s something that finally I was able to piece all together,” Evans said. “Last year, I didn’t have confidence in myself and the ability that I had. I had to do a lot of self-reflecting, and I’ve been able this year to find that confidence.
“I was like, I might as well just go out with a bang. It’s my senior year, I’ve been through it all. I’ve been on the bench and I’ve been on the court and I want to be on the court, so might as well just step up to the plate and compete everyday like it’s my last.”
“(Corin) is a high quality player,” Humphreys said. “She’s just one who just needed that shot of confidence and to be reminded how good she is, and she’s come out and she definitely saved the best for last. She’s a great kid, she’s a great leader, she’s playing the best volleyball of her career.”
The final piece of the 2019 starting lineup is Ariana Pagan, the only member of the six-person 2019 recruiting class to have secured a regular spot in the lineup. The 5-10 outside hitter from Isabela, Puerto Rico, is also one of just two Ladyjacks who are not Texas natives.
“Coming from Puerto Rico where they are very good ball control players, that part of (Ariana’s) game is great. Her volleyball IQ is phenomenal — way above where a freshman typically is,” Humphreys said. “Even though she’s a freshman, she helps calm things out there because she is so steady for us.”
Evans may lead the team in kills, but overall the Ladyjacks run a very balanced offense, and that’s by design.
“It’s all about team,” Humphreys said. “Looking year-in and year-out at us statistically, you can kind of tell that. We’re not a program that feeds the ball to one kid all the time. We have a very balanced offensive attack. We play solid defense. That’s year-in and year-out for us.”
For that reason, the 6-2 makes sense for SFA. Without, for example, someone like Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley on one of the pins or Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke in the middle, players who can carry a massive offensive load, the Ladyjacks have to find another way to get the number of kills they need each set to come out on the winning end of the final scoreline.
“(The 6-2) allows us to do what we need to do offensively, get the kills we need, have that set distribution pretty even between all the players and just keep our opponent guessing,” Humphreys said. “It’s working because not only is Ann doing a good job in the setting role, but Margaret Dean has really come on and is having a great year this year. Her consistency is so much better than it’s been in the past that she’s allowing us to be able to run that 6-2.”
Another reason the 6-2 has been particularly effective is because Hollas has almost doubled her offensive production compared to 2018.
“Last year, I begged (Hollas) for two kills a set,” Humphreys said. “It’s like, ‘Ann, just give me two.’ And we could never quite get there. It was always one-point-something with her. She’d have an occasional week where we’d get two kills out of her. That confidence as a hitter really wasn’t there. But this year, it’s totally different. She’s extremely confident as a hitter, we’re giving her a ton more balls than we ever would have in the past, and she’s doing a phenomenal job with it.”
The senior pre-med major — who in addition to receiving athletic recognition has also racked in academic awards in her three previous seasons, including Southland Student Athlete of the Year, Google Cloud Academic All-America First Team, and CoSIDA Academic All-American — has increased her kills-per-set average from 1.46 in 2018 to 2.34 so far in 2019.
The pieces are there, including the legendary coach who surpassed 700 career victories earlier this year, making her one of just 11 active NCAA DIvision I head coaches to have hit that benchmark.
“Playing under D. Hump is probably one of the best things I have ever been through as far as all different coaching styles I’ve been under,” senior middle Daron said. “She wants it just as bad as us, actually she wants it way more than us. She keeps us fired up in the locker room, keeps us fired up through practice … She lets us know every day like how great we are and what we’re capable of, and I feel like having someone who believes in me like that every day it just makes everything so much easier, so much more fun. She wants to beat everyone just like we want to beat everyone.”
Since that loss more than two months ago, the only sets the Ladyjacks have lost were in that five-setter with Rice, which presents Humphreys and her senior leaders with a different challenge: keeping the team motivated and focused on getting better and not being satisfied with sweeping opponents night after night.
Humphreys noticed it in a recent match versus New Orleans. SFA won in straight sets 25-17, 25-10, 25-20, but the coach felt that partway through the third, her team shifted into cruise control and let its opponent keep the scoreline a little closer than it needed to be.
“When we got home, we addressed that and talked about what is important is us improving on a daily basis. It’s not just about winning that match, it’s about us playing the highest level volleyball we possibly can,” Humphreys said.
And Saturday in a home match against Abilene Christian, her team responded. Offensively, they were much more dialed in, hitting .452 and finishing with three players in double-digit kills.
“We need more nights where we’ve got more people bringing their A-game on the same night,” Humphreys continued. “Once that happens, the sky is the limit. … But in trying to get there, it’s going to require everybody to get out and be extremely motivated for what comes next. If we want to talk about postseason play or we want to talk about making some noise in the NCAA Tournament, we have to be able to go out and be playing consistent ball right now.”
And you know that’s on the mind of all 17 athletes on the SFA roster — the seven players who were there to take on Texas last year in the first round and the 10 who weren’t. If they can keep it up and remain in the national conversation, there’s even a chance they might not have to play Texas, or a similarly top-ranked team, in the first round.
“At the end of the day, we have one goal and it’s to beat everyone in conference, win the conference tournament, and make it to NCAA,” Daron said. “I think we’re all pretty much on the same page there, as far as we can’t get too, I don’t want to say cocky, but too cocky when we’re just beating everyone 3-0 because we should want to do that, we should know that that’s how good we are. That should be a norm, it shouldn’t be something that we’re surprised about because that’s what we work for.”
“There have been a lot of firsts for our program this year. … They’re very grounded though and they understand what that means and they all think, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool, but what matters is this match,’ and we look at things one week at a time,” Humphreys said. “Taking care of this does have an effect and an impact on the big picture, but right now all we can do is go, right now it’s about taking care of Nichols. There’s two teams we need to care about right now, Nichols and ourselves, and that’s it, and more so about ourselves.”