After two consecutive seasons of making their mark for the Southwestern Assemblies of God University volleyball team, a trio of talented players embark on a quest to leave a legacy of greatness. SAGU posted 29-15 and 27-15 marks the past two years including the 2008 regular season championship in the Red River Athletic Conference.
Coach Hank Moore, entering his ninth campaign at the helm, realizes this could be the year Southwestern makes noise well beyond the RRAC, yet has tempered that optimism.
“If we come together as a team, and yield personal performance for the betterment of the team, that chemistry will ignite us,” Moore said of a squad that returns six of its top eight players in rotation. “We have a special chance to do some great things. We know, however, there can be no shortcuts if we’re to meet our goals.”
These ‘Top Cats’ are led by a trifecta of players Kelani Keoho Daniels, Brittani Toole and Rachel Brown. The three were elected team captains prior to the start of the season.
Daniels a 5-9 senior outside hitter, was the conference Player of the Year last fall. Along with 5-11 junior middle hitter Toole, they provided the thunder and the lightning with 581 and 487 kills respectively. Those spikes were set up by Brown, a 5-9 senior setter who is SAGU’s all-time leader in assists. The threesome was recognized with numerous honors, including First Team All-RRAC.
Jordan Briggs, a Second Team All-Conference selection in 2008, developed into a key contributor last year. Her play was often the glue that kept the team together.
While those players will be the focus of much attention by opponents, Moore said this year’s team has returning players he expects to elevate their play, as well as a few freshmen impact players. Don’t be surprised to see the team’s depth contribute to stronger overall performances, as frontline players yield some court time for deserving up-and-comers.
“The girls have worked their tails off to be ready,” Moore said of the Lady Lions’ off-season training.
His club has set some lofty, yet attainable goals: winning the Red River Conference, the National Christian College Athletic Association Regionals and to advance deep in the NAIA National Tournament, which concludes in December in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I feel we will be more competitive than ever,” Moore added.
With a berth in the NAIA tournament in its sights, SAGU suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Wiley College in the RRAC tournament finals last November. The best-of-five series was a white-knuckler that went the distance. The Lions took the first and third sets, 25-22 and 25-20. Wiley won sets two and four, 25-23 and 25-11. In the fifth and decisive set, SAGU twice came within a point of the title. With a match point at 14-12 and another at 15-14, serving errors and a few misplayed passes spelled the end as Wiley rallied for a 17-15 win.
The Lady Lions strengths will be their experience, leadership, cohesiveness and as well as height and speed. The team is two inches taller on the frontline and Moore believes they are the quickest team he has coached at SAGU. The team runs a 5-1 offense, which means one setter distributes the ball to five who can produce points with hitting.
Perhaps the steadiest part of their play is what Moore refers to as “relentless D.” The goal of that defense is simple: “Nothing touches the floor,” Moore said
SAGU has a formidable ability to block shots at the net. Krystal Cisneros, a 5-11 sophomore, led the conference in blocks last season with 71 solos and 71 assisted blocks. Daniels had 28 blocks, Toole 25 and Tina Brown, a 5-7 sophomore, had 23. Moore pointed out that freshmen 5-10 Caitlyn Hudson and 5-9 Amanda Laney could earn playing time in that role.
A speedy group of defensive specialists will utilize quickness to make digs of low-flying balls and to set-up scoring chances. T. Brown, Briggs, Hudson and Laura Espinoza were cited for their pedal-to-the-medal acceleration. SAGU was led in digs last year by Tina’s 415, a testament to her agility.
It all starts with R. Brown, whose role as the team catalyst is to set the table for Daniels and Toole.. R. Brown had 1,304 assists, most of them helping set up Daniels and Toole for kills. Daniels is a sky walker with her 27 inch vertical leaping ability and is already SAGU’s all-time leader with 245 serving aces. She garnered regional and national honors in both the NAIA and NCCAA.
Toole, whose stats are impressive in their own right, sported a solid .291 hitting percentage, meaning nearly 30 percent of her offensive attacks directly produced points. Only Rachel’s .453 was better.
Cisneros (183 kills), T. Brown (169) and Briggs (117) were also threats at the net in hitting percentage. Hudson and Laney could crack the lineup if their high school prowess in kills follows them to the Division I level of the NAIA. Hudson was the all-time kills leader at Texas Class 4A Mansfield Legacy. Laney was a TAPPS First Team All-State player for New Braunfels Christian. Briggs was second on the team in assists with 83. Meredith Wendel, a 5-9 sophomore who transferred from the University of Texas at Arlington after starting for three years at setter in high school, and New Braunfels’ 5-5 freshman Rikki Lea Anderson are potential future SAGU setters.