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Is volleyball ready for the big jump?

Let’s see what numbers show for coach Graystone’s team

Texas Tech Athletics

In this period in which every sport looks like a distant cloud that doesn’t want to free its rain, we have some time to look back to the season prior. In particular I want to talk about volleyball and about the season the Red Raiders ended last December. With the advent of Coach Graystone, the program began a slow but constant improvement. Let’s see the Big 12 record in these four years of tenure:

2016: 0-16

2017: 4-12

2018: 6-10

2019: 7-9

In 2019 the final record was 17-13. We can say this could be even better but the team paid two periods of blackout. The first came in early September when the Red Raiders went to Evanston, Illinois and appeared in the NU Under Armor. Seven days before they dominated another tournament hosted by Ohio State in Columbus and another sweep could mean one of the best seasons starts in recent history.

Things didn’t go as planned. An injury to starting setter Alex Kirby led to three losses against a very good Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern, and Austin Peay teams. In hindsight, those could and should have been two wins. If we consider Texas Tech finished its off-conference schedule at 10-4, we can see how much that weekend affected the season.

Alex Kirby, setter

After starting the conference schedule at 4-2, the second blackout came and hit hard. Six straight losses sank the team, but with fierceness, they still had three wins in the last four games. With some more positive glimpses here and there, we could be there discussing a 20-victory season.

And what about 2020?

I tried a sort of prediction and I helped myself with VDPR. This stands for Volleyball Dynamic Player Ranking and it’s an interesting tool that analyzes players’ performances and sorts them on a 0-100 scale. I developed it myself and have covered all 335 division I schools. We want to understand how things went in the past and see if there’s space for some improvement and maybe for the big season we’re all waiting for.

SETTERS:

Andrea Cornaglia - VDPR project

Here things could seem not so positive, but there are two factors we have to consider.

1- If Alex Kirby had stayed healthy and maintained the same stats, her index would easily have reached 80-82 points. This is a level of excellence and she would have fought with three very good setters like McLaughlin, Mauck, and Gabriel.

2- See the picture below:

Andrea Cornaglia - VDPR project

Kirby improved so much in 2019 and all seems to show she can still make some further step. In this position, we can say things are interesting with a very future-proof athlete. This is a good base to start, as the setter is (for those who don’t know the sport) the brain, the quarterback of the team. Coach Graystone has great expectations for her, and we can’t wait to see the next step of her development.

MIDDLE BLOCKERS:

For those who don’t know this sport in detail, attacking with middle blockers is a cornerstone of every offensive system. Consequently, we can say that this solid base often is a synonym of positive performances. Let’s see what VDPR wants to say about this position:

Andrea Cornaglia - VDPR project

Ugh.

Here we can see three things.

1 - Things didn’t go well in 2019, and graphics clearly show this aspect. Cadi Boyer obtained this result with minimal playing time, and she could improve a lot in 2020;

2 - Texas Tech has one of the smallest (if not THE smallest) units in the Big 12. In this position every inch count in many ways, so this is expected to be a weakness also next year.

3 - In the entire conference, only two middle blockers reached the end of their eligibility. So things won’t change too much and every improvement in this index will mean overpassing the same opponents with one more year of experience.

To be fair, Karrington Jones had a good showing at the U.S. Women’s National Team Open Tryouts and earned a spot on the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team. This would have meant spending part of her summer training with the U.S. Collegiate National Team-Anaheim program in Anaheim, Calif., but with the virus spreading every activity is unclear.

OPPOSITE:

Here things have a name and a surname: Brooke Kanas. She had a fantastic 2018 and we were ready to see her confirmation in 2019. A summer injury irked her training and her numbers never took off.

Andrea Cornaglia - VDPR project

In this position, I only considered players with no responsibility in the reception with at least 50 kills in the season. Only six players in Big 12 had these features, but Brooke in 2019 was the worst among them.

The good news? She has incredible upside, and she can rebound in 2020. She showed she has the skills and the ability to use them on the court. With a preseason without physical problems, we could see her best.

OUTSIDE HITTERS:

I suppose that this was the unit on which coach Graystone relied the most last summer. Two seniors with quality and experience in Emily Hill and Chandler Atwood were ready to lead the team.

Well...

Hill made her things, but what about Atwood? Se battled with injuries all year long and basically played in only 17 sets. Her stats were even too small to create an index. This led to an increased (and not expected) role for freshman Caitlin Dugan.

With both Hill and Atwood leaving, we can say the experience Dugan earned in 2019 will be as useful as a beer in a sunny day. But in this position usually there are two players on the court at the same time. Who will be the other?

One more “ugh”.

Frankly there wasn’t much in the pantry, so coach Graystone went shopping. He brought sophomore Reagan Cooper from Washington State and, more important, senior Samantha Sanders from Texas A&M. The latter is probably one of the expected two starters. Probably we can expect something from the recruits, but this is something we’ll discuss in another article.

DEFENSIVE SPECIALISTS / LIBEROS:

Emerson Solano was one of the most recognizable faces on and off the court and she became one of the leaders of the team. This will continue in 2020, with the cooperation of many other players: we can name, among others, Katy Northcut and Lindsey Dodson, who had a solid freshman season. This is not a unit that scares me, as there’s enough talent to carry the load in 2020.

GLOBAL CONSIDERATIONS:

1100 words to say what?

Well, if we consider injuries, the two blackout periods we talked about, and a couple missed opportunities, it’s clear that things could be very different. The 20-victory mark, a measure of quality in college volleyball, was in the reach and would have been reached without hitches.

There’s an expression I love, and says “If my grandma had three wheels, she were a wheelbarrow”. This was the past and now we have to focus on the future. Expectations are high for 2020, of course. The program doesn’t hit the 20-victory mark since 2000, and 20 years later we could see this happen.