Editor's Note: First in a season-long series of features written by longtime Baton Rouge sportswriter and television journalist Lee Feinswog. Look for these features online and in official athletics department publications throughout the 2014-15 season.
She couldn’t quite make it to the top of the 42-inch box. No, during a test this summer Briana Holman had to settle for jumping up 40 inches, which, when you think about it in athletic terms, is simply freaky, especially for a woman.
Which is one big reason why the LSU sophomore volleyball player is a preseason All-Southeastern Conference pick after being a first-teamer in 2013.
And the SEC doesn’t even know about how much she’s improved since going to China.
“Her blocking has gotten even better,” said LSU senior teammate Madi Mahaffey, at 6-foot-4 three inches taller than Holman. “I think when she went to China she got to see the next level of play. The SEC is not the top level. We’re getting better, but she got to play with some of the Pac-12’s and Big Ten’s best players and seeing the level and I think it really expanded her range of blocking.”
Mahaffey shook her head.
“We were doing a couple of blocking drills the other day and she was like a house,” Mahaffey said with a laugh while holding her hands up and apart. “You couldn’t get it by her. I mean, her elbows are over the net, the block is sealed, it’s just awesome.”
Start with the trip to China, where Holman was one of 12 players on USA Volleyball’s Collegiate National Team that went 5-2 on the venture to Sanming and Beijing. One of the coaches, Mark Rosen of Michigan, knew Holman all too well. In the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, Holman had 15 kills and six blocks as LSU shocked Michigan in a five-set upset in Seattle.
“I was really impressed with her. Physically she is incredible,” said Rosen, who took the Wolverines to the 2012 final four. “Her top end and her ability to improve is huge. I really enjoyed working with her on the trip. I thought her work ethic and her competitive spirit was extremely high. I think it was beneficial for our team to have her, but she got better as the program went on, which was really cool.”
Which, of course, bodes well for LSU, which is trying to not only make it back to the NCAA Tournament but get past the second round for the first time since making back-to-back final fours in 1990 and ‘91. The Tigers, 19-13 in 2013 including 8-10 in the SEC, eliminated Michigan but then lost to eventual final-four participant Washington on its home floor, giving the Huskies all they could handle in a tough four-set match.
Holman, a middle blocker from the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, set an LSU freshman record in 2013 with her whopping 200 blocks – fifth-best in the nation -- including 38 solo. She averaged 1.59 kills per set and totaled 391, second only to junior teammate Cati Leak, who had 395.
“I’m going to be honest,” Holman said, “I’ve always has low confidence in myself and sometimes I struggle, so I had no idea what I was capable of. When I got here I got really good training – we have a really good staff here – and I got stronger and bigger and just kind of ran with it.”
She ran pretty well. Holman hit .327, by far LSU’s most effective on a team that averaged .211. That wasn’t lost on Rosen and co-head coach Lauren Steinbrecher of James Madison when they picked their team last January.
The team gathered for three days of practice at USC, Holman’s first trip to California. And then it was off to China. There were two other SEC players on the team, 2013 league MVP Carly Kan of Missouri and Kentucky’s Morgan Bergren. For that matter, had Kan not had the remarkable season she did Holman might have been the player of the year in the SEC.
On the trip Holman became fast friends with Alaysia Brown, a sophomore middle from the University of San Diego and coincidentally LSU opens its season at Purdue against San Diego on August 29.
“Going to China gave me a wider outlook on volleyball in that there are different styles of play,” Holman said. “The Chinese aren’t very tall. There were some tall ones, but they weren’t very tall overall. So they played quicker volleyball. Since I’ve been back it seems that everything has slowed down since I was playing the fast tempo.
“It’s improved my blocking. I used to just be really physical and jump as high as I can. Now I’m able to quickly look and locate the ball and get my hands there. So my blocking has improved so much.”
That wasn’t lost on Rosen, whose Michigan team plays in the so-big and so-physical Big Ten.
“The cool thing is she was extremely receptive to coaching, criticism and then making a change,” Rosen said. “And in some difficult areas and to a coach, that’s really gratifying.”
Rosen didn’t pull any punches with Holman and that helped, too.
“Sometimes hearing the same thing from different coaches makes it click more than if I keep hearing it from Fran,” Holman admitted. “That helped a lot.”
When asked about the one they call “Bri” and pronounced Bree, her coaches and teammates nearly all talk about her drive, intensity and focus.
“That’s true,” Holman said. “I just strive to be the best I can be at all times. I was always like that. Even when I was little the other kids would just want to have fun when we were playing games and I took it seriously.”
Senior outside hitter Helen Boyle said sometimes she just has to make Holman step back and laugh, usually by teasing her.
“Bri has a lot of goals and she never loses sight of her goals, so she’s always working towards them,” said Boyle, herself a member of a USA national program this past summer. “And she wants the team to come with her, too, so she’s not leaving us behind.”
Holman decided through the recruiting process, which began early, that she didn’t want to go to school in a cold-weather climate, “which eliminated a lot,” she said with a smile, and ultimately came down to Baylor and LSU.
As 16th-year LSU head coach Fran Flory said, early on some schools saw Holman as a so-called project.
“And a lot of people stayed away from her because they didn’t understand her attitude. They didn’t think she was a very good team player, but she was a basketball player,” Flory said.
For that matter, Flory told her straight out in their first phone conversation, “You know Bri, the word on the street is you’re not a very good team player. You don’t interact with your teammates.”
And Flory was impressed with the response.
“She told me, ‘I’m a basketball player, I have to get ready for the next play. I don’t have time for all the hand slapping and all that. I’m supposed to be ready for the next thing.’
“I absolutely loved it and then I began to understand Briana Holman. Bri comes off very intense, certainly someone you want on your side of the net not on the opposite side. But she really, really deep inside has this passion to be great and it’s a lot of internal and drive.”
Certainly there will be more national teams for Holman, and with three more NCAA seasons left, you would imagine her ceiling is awfully high.
As Mahaffey said, “She can bounce some balls.
“It’s pretty insane.”
“She appears to have this great grasp of the game and she makes so many plays naturally,” Flory said.
“Honestly, about 75 percent of the time last year she didn’t know what the heck she was doing within the system and within the play. Now she’s at about 50 percent of understanding how to, what to and why to. She’s that special at this point. She could be amazing.”