Time to mash this one out before my attention turns to Argentina for the bulk of this week. It hasn’t been that long since the first piece, but in the interests of total continuity, the rundown:
America East Conference
Southwestern Athletic Conference
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Big Sky Conference
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Big South Conference
Colonial Athletic Association
Ohio Valley Conference
Western Athletic Conference
The Summit League
Atlantic Sun Conference
American Athletic Conference
Sun Belt Conference
Atlantic 10 Conference
Big West Conference
Mountain West Conference
Big East Conference
Missouri Valley Conference
Atlantic Coast Conference
Big 12 Conference
West Coast Conference
Big Ten Conference
The SWAC, having as they do a unifying theme to their member institutions, do not experience a change ahead of the 2013 academic year. Their last change in membership was in 1999, when Alabama A&M joined, though I’ll admit that even that was well more recent than I was expecting. Of the league’s ten members, seven have been there and stayed since the 1960′s (and in a couple of cases, some decades before that). I’ve always thought this was a bit of an odd name for a conference whose members are in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. South Central Athletic Conference more like, no?
The SWAC tournament champions a year ago were the regular-season champions Jackson State, and they managed to be a fair bit more competitive in their matchup against a team that badly outmatched them than were the America East’s Binghamton, putting up a borderline-respectable (25-10, 25-17, 25-10) effort against second-ranked Stanford. The Lady Tigers really dominated the league a year ago. Here’s how the standings looked at year’s end:
1. Jackson State 8-0 (24-12)
2. Alabama A&M 6-2 (12-20)
3. Mississippi Valley State 3-5 (10-15)
4. Alabama State 3-5 (9-27)
5. Alcorn State 0-8 (1-28)
1. Prairie View A&M 7-1 (14-21)
2. Texas Southern 6-2 (15-15)
3. Arkansas-Pine Bluff 5-3 (10-18)
4. Southern 1-7 (4-25)
5. Grambling State 1-7 (3-19)
It may look like a ridiculous number of non-conference versus conference matches, but in the SWAC, the only matches that count as conference play are the traditional home-and-away double-round robin against only teams in your same division. In contrast to basically every other conference (if not literally every conference) these teams will play invitationals amongst themselves. For example, the only SWAC team Jackson State didn’t play last year was Texas Southern, despite only the matches with their East Division foes counting as SWAC conference play. And counting invitationals, regular season play, and the SWAC tournament, they managed to face Alabama State five different times. I’m sure it’s par for the course of being part of a conference where tradition is so important, a fair sight more so than in other conferences.
Jackson State were the clear class of the SWAC in 2012. After a 2-12 start, the Lady Tigers rattled off an impressive 22 straight wins prior to their loss in the NCAA tournament. Yeah, yeah, weak competition, whatever….not losing a match for two months is impressive. Period. The Lady Tigers were statistically the nation’s very best serving team a season ago, averaging 2.2 aces per set, the only team over 2. They suffer a pretty major departure with the graduation of outside hitter Christine Edwards, who led the nation in aces per set individually (only the Stanford match knocked her under a full ace per set average on the year, which led the nation by a substantial margin). She also had over twice as many kills as anyone on the team, leading the conference in that area to be named SWAC Player of the Year. Middle blocker Paige Williams joined Edwards on the first team All-SWAC squad a year ago, and is another pretty profound loss as she averaged well over a block per set. Dana Yoshimura, a libero-stroke-DS (she filled both roles) also departs the team ahead of 2013, as does Kameron Boggan, an offensive all-round player who started as regularly as anyone. The foremost returner is sophomore middle blocker Mikayla Rolle, who was second team all-SWAC in 2012, but other than her, the cupboard is a little bare. The Lady Tigers did go undefeated in 2013 spring play, but it remains to be seen just how much this means. There’s a lot of gaps to fill.
The Alabama A&M Lady Bulldogs had the same number of all-conference players in 2012 as did Jackson State — two — but the difference is both of them return. Senior-to-be Clairissa Moore led the team in scoring with just under 4 kills per set, and did it on a .302 efficiency — the only hitter in the conference above .300 on the season. Setter Ashley Forman, a junior in 2013, was likewise first team all-conference, though her setting numbers aren’t particularly impressive, checking in at only a touch over 9 assists per set. It’s not always all about statistics, of course. While outside hitter Mariah Brown departs via graduation, there are two further players who appeared in every match last season for the Lady Bulldogs, middle blocker Leslie Epke and regular libero Rebecca Cortez, senior and sophomore respectively. Like Jackson State, Alabama A&M started off really slowly in 2012, winning just one of their first 12 matches. The responding run was solid rather than dominant, leading to their 10-19 final mark. Returning a more solid core means they have a very good chance to displace two-time defending conference champions Jackson State n 2013.
The Mississippi Valley State Devilettes had a rough start to their 2012 season just like Jackson State and Alabama A&M, but theirs was perhaps doubly so. Winning just one of their first eight matches included losses to Tougaloo College, Union University, and Arkansas-Monticello. If you’ve never heard of any of those institutions, don’t worry — that’s, respectively, an NAIA school and two NCAA Division II teams. That’s not a good run for any Division I team. They went a little over .500 the rest of the way, including SWAC conference play. Ultimately though, you’d have to say they did reasonably well for a team with such a small roster — only ten players. Except for outside hitter Ilaisha Hale, all of them played in every match last year. Setter April Brown, outside hitter Brychana Williams, and libero Jane Peterson depart via graduation, and to replace them, MVSU have signed a six-player incoming class. These number three freshmen recruits out of high school and three transfers from small colleges. The incoming class targets the middle blocker position, which was a notable weakness for the Devilettes as they were out-blocked by 75 total blocks in 2012. Joining sophomore returner Halle Gayten are juco transfer Taylor Littleton and freshman Cynthia Richardson, who will slot in as the team’s two tallest players and figure to be likely to get consistent playing time this season. The Devilettes ran a 6-2 last season with Brown and Alexandria Garland. The addition of freshman setter Athena Abary gives them the opportunity to stay in that formation, but Abary’s slight frame (just 5-foot-3) makes it a tad questionable. Juco transfer Kayondra Wood probably will be Peterson’s replacement at libero, as the team did not have any other dedicated back-row specialist in 2012. This is a team in a bit of flux, as all teams are, but it looks likely that they’ll be better in 2013 than they were in 2012.’
Alabama State are called the Hornets (strictly, the Lady Hornets — most SWAC teams modify the nickname slightly for women’s sports), but I’m terrified of bees, and their athletic logo is just a little too nail-on-the-head (they even have a buzzing/flying version on their athletics website), so you get the university logo. Deal with it Despite a pretty motley 2012 record, the Hornets did place a player on the first team all-SWAC, that being Brazilian import (a phrase I wasn’t expecting to use in this piece) Luiza Griz. By virtue of this honour, she was also named SWAC Libero of the Year. Middle hitter Myla Marshall made second team all-conference. Setter Brooke Beasley was named SWAC Newcomer of the Year. You may have noticed I haven’t said anything about players departing via graduation. That’s because there aren’t any — Alabama State’s entire 15-player roster a year ago was made up of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. That’s not to say they’ll all come back — there are always transfers, especially in conferences of modest repute such as this one — and coupling a reasonably large roster with a four-player incoming class certainly suggest some have departed. That incoming class includes setter Ellyn Jones, who was part of IUPUI’s regular 6-2 a year ago as the Jaguars captured the Summit League regular season championship. Serbian middle blocker Dragana Cvoric, a junior college transfer, adds to the team’s international flavour. The team’s immense experience will likely pay dividends for them in 2013. Curiously, Alabama State had a decided home-court disadvantage — they won just one of 15 home matches a year ago. I’d certainly expect that to improve this coming season.
The Alcorn State Lady Braves had quite a rough time of it in 2012, winning just a single match — against a Division III school called Rust College. If their website can be believed, they didn’t win a single set in any other match, losing their 28 losses in sweeps. The stats link on their site doesn’t work, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s a programming mistake. Alcorn State had a 13-player roster in 2012, none of them seniors, but with their immense struggles it remains to be seen which of them are on the roster this season. With so little information available, I’m afraid I can’t really say much of anything about this team. I have to call into question just a little the university’s commitment to the sport, as after running under an interim head coach in 2012, the team will be led in 2013 by Jessica Harris, who splits her attention between the Alcorn State volleyball and softball teams. I’m sure she’s a dedicated, capable woman, but a coach really should keep his or her efforts on one single sport. NCAA Division I is not some rec league where simple leadership is all that’s needed to be an effective coach — I’m not convinced a coach can have the level of expertise needed to be simultaneously proficient in two sports as he or she would be in one. I’m not expecting much of this team.
Prairie View A&M won the SWAC West last season, and did it without a first team all-conference player. Opposite hitter Breanna McNeil departs through graduation, but libero Shanice Faison and setter Kelsey Espinosa will return. Opposite hitter Bruna Menezes, another Brazilian import, is the team’s leading scorer among those returning. Middle blocker Amelia Velez, opposite hitter (lots of RS’s listed on the roster) Rachel Owens, and DS LaKeisha Allen round out the team’s regular core from 2012, and they all return this season. With the exception of McNeil’s departure, the team look to be mostly stable from last year to this, and coming off a victory in the SWAC West means that’s bound to be good news. That said, though, the Lady Panthers were at a stark disadvantage a season ago in blocking, suffering more than 2 opposing blocks per set last year while notching less than 1 of their own. PVAMU are also one of the few teams to have already announced their full 2013 schedule — they’ll begin their season on 30 August at an invitational hosted by Texas State.
Texas Southern placed two players on last year’s first team all-conference team last year, just as Jackson State and Alabama State. Junior outside hitter Mona Reed is one of the conference’s few 6-footers, and may just be the only one not to play the middle blocker position. Middle blocker Veronica Azubuike is the other first-team player from 2012. Outside hitter Robyn Shannon was the conference Freshman of the Year (they did have separate awards for Freshman and Newcomer of the Year) and was one of only four players who played in every match for the Tigers last year, along with Azubuike and now-departed outside hitters Gabrielle Gray and Kierra Whittaker. But they did spread their options quite a bit — all 14 players played in at least seven matches, eleven of them played at least 13 matches, and ten of them played 18 matches. Certainly lays the groundwork for a well-rounded cast of characters. The Tigers ran a 6-2 much of last season with Jyra Churchill and Sarah Wooten setting in more than 20 of the team’s matches last season. With both returning, I’d expect them to run the same formation this year. The Tigers were probably the best blocking team in the SWAC last year, one of the only squads to out-block their opposition on the season.
Fierce mascot. Arkansas-Pine Bluff are known as the Lady Lions (Golden Lions). Despite a decent conference showing a season ago, they had just a single second-team all-conference selection, namely outside hitter Alicia Campbell, who returns. Middle-stroke-right side Audrey Sherles led the team in total kills while narrowly missing out to Campbell on attack percentage. The Lady Lions also ran a 6-2 in 2012, with half of that equation Alexis Lowe departing via graduation. Jordan Foyer returns, and may well be joined by sophomore Eleni-James Becton, who got occasional 2012 playing time, this year to reform the 6-2.
Southern’s Lady Jaguars had a tough time in 2012, having to their name just a 9-player roster last year. You saw me express disbelief in the America East piece that Providence had just 10 last year, so nine strikes me as an immense hardship. You can’t really maximise your players’ skills and faculties if you’re forced to spread them so thin. None of the nine are lost to graduation. Middle-stroke-outside Jacquia Bell was the team’s top scorer a season ago. Amber Shelly, of similar positional listing, was next-best. Surprisingly, even with such a slender roster, Chandra Journet did the statistical lion’s share (jaguar’s share?) of the setting rather than splitting duties with Keya Bennett, likewise listed as setter. Bennett mostly served as a defence specialist in 2012. Adding to the team’s hardships in 2012 were an unexpected number of medical redshirts (not that any are ever really ‘expected’), meaning the team will be at least somewhat more deep in 2013. For their sake, I’m glad.
Grambling State end the story of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They had a difficult season in 2012 and look like they’ll be in line for another, as after a 3-win 2012 campaign they lose their leading scorer Dorothy Brown as well as 6-foot-2 starting middle blocker April Johnson. Opposite hitter Tiara McIver is the leading scorer among the returners, and middle-stroke-outside Briliante Osborne (great name) posted genuinely good blocking numbers, as the Tigers (sure are a lot of fierce cats in this conference) out-blocked their opponents on the season. With that said, Grambling State struggled mightily in all other phases of the game, not least service reception. The Tigers allowed a downright gruesome 3.14 service aces per set to the opposition. National records aren’t kept for that statistic, but I’d be surprised if that wasn’t worst in the country. It’s something they definitely need to work on. They also allowed a .262 attack percentage while attaining just .107 as a team themselves while being outscored by more than 5 points per set, but those tend to be “you have it or you don’t” areas. The Tigers ran perhaps the conference’s most robust 6-2, with both Breonna Loud and Tori Wilson playing every match and set, though statistically they have tremendous room to improve. With Southern returning players from long-term injuries, it’s tough to see this team getting out of the cellar.
Again, it’s unlikely that anyone from this conference will be of any great consequence, but this league is definitely more robust for volleyball than you might have guessed, and certainly is more so than the America East. I look for a changing of the guard at the top of the ranks with two-time defending league champions Jackson State losing a lot of their players.
1. Alabama A&M
2. Mississippi Valley State
3. Alabama State
4. Jackson State
5. Alcorn State
1. Prairie View A&M
2. Texas Southern
4. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
5. Grambling State