Setting up for an unpredictable finish

As appeared on and the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball Magazine

by @DavidAPortney


Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos

Gone are the days of hot and humid gyms of opening day weekend.

Gone are the preseason matches that see your favorite programs play schools you’ve never seen.

Gone is the time when the head coach doesn’t have a good grip on their team’s identity.

Now let’s replace that with crisp autumnal weather, heated conference rivalries and the coach making that tweak in the lineup at just the perfect time.

With the NCAA Division I Championship Selection Show set for 8:30 p.m. ET Nov. 30 (ESPNU), it’s crazy to think we’re in the final leg of the regular season. It’s been an unpredictable season thus far, and I don’t expect that to change before the 2014 NCAA championship trophy is raised above the victors’ heads this December in Oklahoma City.

Here are the top five things to keep an eye on as we head down the stretch:

Freshmen Phenoms

Remember when wide-eyed freshmen would join a team, and they, for the most part, just sat on the bench (or in volleyball, stood on the sideline) to let the upperclassmen do the heavy lifting? Those days are long gone as freshmen from all across the country are making a strong impact on their nationally ranked programs. One of the strongest resides in the swamps of Florida, where middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan has shown what an asset she is to the Florida Gators. Heading into the season she was viewed as a “project” with raw athletic ability and a 37.7-inch vertical, but maybe not quite at the All-American skill level. That couldn’t have turned out to be further than the truth. In just the third week of her career, Alhassan was named the Sports Imports/AVCA Player of the Week. If the Gators make a deep run in the tournament, look out for Alhassan.

However, she is hardly the only freshman proving her worth. A plethora of 2013 Under Armour All-Americans are making immediate impacts on contending teams. Starting in Penn State, if the Nittany Lions defend their 2013 championship and win their sixth in eight years, outside hitters Ali Frantti and Simone Lee will be a key reason why. Staying in the Big Ten, Wisconsin outside Kelli Bates has shown B1G volleyball is not too big for her, and with AVCA All-American setter Lauren Carlini dishing her ball, Bates could be huge down the stretch.

Heading out west to the Pac-12, Under Armour All-Americans once again make up a whole lot of quality freshmen. Washington outside Tia Scambray gives UW another great option to go along with AVCA All-Americans Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. At UCLA, Reily Buechler (daughter of three-time NBA champion Jud Buechler) has been hovering around three kills per set. While these are quality freshmen, there are dozens more out there worthy of mention if this could be a 20-page article.

The Class of the Pac-12

It’s no secret the Pac-12 Conference boasts some of the nation’s elite teams, but the way it stands right now there are two that stick out above the rest. Both Stanford and Washington are serious championship contenders; it’s just too bad their one matchup this season comes on Nov. 26. Both the Cardinal and Huskies have championship level talent. Stanford has the big middle Inky Ajanaku, who by the way is from Oklahoma, the site of the NCAA championship. Washington has the reigning 2013 AVCA Player of the Year Krista Vansant. Those two players will get their stats, so what separates the two teams is who gets the most help from their supporting casts. Since they’re both so even, make sure you tune into the Pac-12 Networks for that Nov. 26 matchup … it could double as an NCAA championship preview.

The wide open Big Ten

The Big Ten is also right there with the Pac-12 in terms of conference depth. However, at the moment there isn’t a clear team or two that have separated themselves from the pack. It’s tough to overlook Penn State, which has been the most dominant team of the decade and has reloaded this year. The only question is the Nittany Lions’ youth surrounding AVCA All-American senior setter and native Oklahoman Micha Hancock leading the squad. The Nittany Lions talent level is there, but playing on the big stage with the amount of youth they have is not easy to do.

The other half of the 2013 NCAA championship match, Wisconsin, is a team to be taken seriously. Like Penn State, the Badgers return their All-American setter Lauren Carlini and have another year experience after last year’s dream run. Purdue is having another tremendous season under head coach Dave Shondell; Illinois has notched victories in Penn State and Nebraska; Ohio State recently has been one of the hottest teams in the conference; and Nebraska is still Nebraska. This season has shown, especially in the Big Ten, that any team can beat another.

Is Florida State for real?

The Florida State Seminoles have become regulars near the top of the AVCA coaches’ polls for good reason. They’ve not only overcome the loss of All-American Ashley Neff, but they seem to have gotten better. Outside hitter Nicole Walch returned and has taken the majority of the swings this year averaging around four kills per set while also getting it done on defense. Speaking of defense, libero Katie Mosher is the program’s career record-holder in digs, and has a fearless attitude that permeates throughout the team.

Don’t let the Gators’ record fool you into thinking they’ve played a cream puff schedule. They’ve recorded wins on the road against Nebraska, Iowa State, American, Texas A&M (twice) as well as victories against Marquette, LSU and North Carolina. Also, the Noles aren’t new to the party. Remember the 2011 NCAA semifinals in San Antonio. Who were the four teams? Champion UCLA, Illinois, USC and who was that fourth team? Yup, Florida State! Head coach Chris Poole was there just three years ago, and with the talent he has on this roster he can get back there again.

Texas can do it again

For a team with a pedigree like the Longhorns, it’s difficult to not to envision them in the NCAA semifinals. In fact, they’ve participated in the event five of the past six years. At this point, there will be considerable surprise if Texas doesn’t win the Big 12 Conference and make a deep run in the 2014 NCAA tournament. With three-time AVCA All-American Haley Eckerman leading the way, she has a great supporting cast of Khat Bell, Molly McCage, Chiaka Ogbogu and freshman libero Cat McCoy. The same question is brought up when talking about Texas this time of year: “Have they been tested enough?” The Longhorns answer that question year in and year out with NCAA semifinal appearances. With the tournament culminating less than six hours north of Austin, expect the Longhorn faithful to take the trip if UT makes it six out of seven.


• Oklahoma — They may not be able to surpass Texas in the Big 12, but don’t sleep on the Sooners. They know the championship will be held in their home state, and there’s nothing they’d like more than to sneak their way there. Look for a strong conclusion to their regular season to be in the NCAA tournament mix.

• SEC — Florida may be the traditional Southeastern Conference powerhouse, but the rest of the conference is catching up. Kentucky is strong and will battle it out with the Gators, but it’s by no means a two-horse race. Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M have proved worthy contenders on the national stage.

• Other schools to watch — You don’t need to be a school from a power conference to contend for a title. At the moment, Colorado State and BYU look to have the greatest chance of crashing the big party. The Rams’ Kelsey Snider is a beast in the middle averaging three kills and more than one block per set while hitting a robust .400. For the Cougars, opposite Jennifer Hamson is back on the volleyball court after taking off last year to focus on basketball. In 2012, she was an AVCA First-Team All-American, so two years later she’s been able to come back her same dominant self. It’s scary to think what her team is capable of if Hamson can somehow improve upon what she’s already done.

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Heading back to Okla-home

As appeared on and the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball Magazine

by @DavidAPortney

Back in 2006, Bon Jovi released a song titled, Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

Eight years later, two AVCA First-Team All-Americans from Oklahoma are looking to do just that. Penn State senior setter Micha Hancock (Edmond, Oklahoma) and Stanford junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku (Tulsa, Oklahoma) both enter the season in the top five of the AVCA Preseason Coaches’ Poll with realistic expectations to be the one at the end of the year hoisting the NCAA championship trophy in, you guessed it, Oklahoma City.

Hancock, after leading the Nittany Lions to their sixth championship and fifth in the past seven years, will look to end her collegiate career in the state she first picked up a volleyball. Ajanaku on the other hand, one year her junior, will try to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 2008 and their first championship since 2004. Take a guess which two NCAA Division I volleyball programs have the most overall championships with six? You guessed right again: Penn State and Stanford.

Penn State senior setter Micha Hancock

Penn State Senior Setter Micha Hanock/

“The fact we’re tied for championships, and I don’t like ties, I would love to win for Penn State, for our team and for our tradition,” Hancock proudly said.

While both Hancock and Ajanaku would love to win a championship in any city, they both acknowledge it will have added significance to do it in the Sooner State. Because of the Oklahoma way of life with tight-knit communities, the added meaning stems from a culture instead of geography.

“One thing that’s different from Oklahoma to Stanford is the people have a greater sense of community,” Ajanaku said of the adjustment. “They’re more inclined to say ‘hi’ and take the time to get to know you. Sometimes I miss that.

“I don’t think it’s added pressure, but more motivation. All of my friends said they’re going to come down, so it’s just more of a motivation to go because it would be a fantastic experience winning the national championship in my home state.”

Since Oklahoma has such a close community, there was certainly a strong awareness both players had of each other playing in the club scene. Ajanaku called Hancock the “superstar” of Oklahoma watching her play her sister Kitan Ajanaku (now at Georgia State), who she credits with introducing her to the sport. While Inky noticed Micha on the court as an elite setter, Micha definitely noticed a second tall and athletic Ajanaku in the gym.

“I’d always see her [Inky] as the younger sister wanting to play with us peppering on the side by herself. I definitely knew she was going to be a good player. I just knew at the time that she was so athletic, and once someone molds her she was going to be really good. Sure enough, she went to Stanford and I was like, ‘There you go. Inky and I are off.’ It was pretty cool to see a couple of us get out of Oklahoma and expand our horizons with a big team.”

While they both left to play for traditional volleyball powerhouses, with elite players now coming from Oklahoma coupled with the NCAA semifinals and championship taking place there, volleyball exposure back in their home state is on the upswing. So much so that when Hancock makes it home for a “break,” it turns out to be anything but.

“I know a lot of girls seem to be a little hungrier. When I go back home they hit me up to play beach or try to see what is my likelihood of playing. I have girls wanting to get my ideas about going to a particular college. They’re looking for advice, which is good because it shows they want to get out there and play.”

There is no question they have embraced the role as Oklahoma ambassadors, so while they can continue to assure their coaches, teammates and fan bases it’s all about the team, sometimes it’s a little more.

“It would mean the world to me,” Ajanaku said on the prospect of winning it all in OKC. “Last year in Seattle, my sister was going to come surprise me at the semifinals and I hadn’t seen her in forever. I was just thinking after we lost in the regional final [to Penn State] how much that would mean to me. That was just one person. To have all of that support in Oklahoma this year — I’m not sure how I’d handle it. I think I just might break down. … I honestly don’t have any doubts that we’ll make it this year.”

Is this all a coincidence the stars seem to be aligning for Hancock?

“Just being in Oklahoma for me, it’s almost like fate. The national championship is in Oklahoma. I’m a senior. That’s just crazy timing, and I would want nothing more than to hold up that championship trophy at the end of the year.”

Maybe Bon Jovi was right all along. Who says you can’t go home?

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Making Volleyball Better on Television


by @DavidAPortney

We all watch TV.

Some watch it more than others. Some watch programs they don’t like to admit as a change of pace to their everyday lives (guilty with that one), and some just leave the TV programmed to sports 24/7. No matter your television preferences, how often have you stumbled across a volleyball match? If I posed this question as recently as a few years ago, odds are you’d have an easier time remembering what you had for breakfast last Tuesday. Thankfully, times have changed. As we look ahead to the 2014 fall season, there will be hundreds of matches on the tube with even more web streamed live online.

“I think it’s the best time we’ve ever had,” said Pac-12 Networks volleyball broadcaster Kevin Barnett. “That’s certainly true collegiately and internationally with the proliferation of sports channels and the need for content. Collegiate volleyball in this country has grown so much, I think there is a tremendous amount of interest on the fans side that hasn’t been there before.”

The 2014 AVCA Grant Burger Media Award winning Pac-12 Networks is leading the way with 96 scheduled televised matches this season. With the numbers increasing every year, as a volleyball community we can no longer be content with the fact we’re on TV, but how the broadcasts themselves are evolving.

Barnett, who also hosts a weekly volleyball podcast called The Net Live, believes the people in charge of the broadcasts have become a lot more volleyball savvy and it’s shown. Working with producers, directors and other broadcasters, he sees first-hand how their mind set has advanced by simply gaining more experience in the space.
However, he feels there is still plenty of room for improvement. Here are just three important topics to discuss that Barnett feels could make better volleyball on TV: camera angles, replay and viewer education.

Camera Angles
“Show more end zone. Stick with the end zone camera for a while for maybe a few points. Sure, you might miss something that happened on the other side of the net, but you can always go back and replay that. This is why coaches sit there. Why are they [sitting there]? Let’s take a look at that.”

Should there be more? Less? Low angle or high angle? Should we hold up play on the court to show a replay on TV? Every sport uses replay and has for quite some time, but the real progression in that space has come in the form of camera technology.
“We need more high speed cameras. When you do show replays, it’s really good because it slows down the ball contact, the touches on the block and those kinds of things that show the hitter make a choice at the last millisecond to decide to crank the ball line. I don’t think the amount of replays are missing, it’s the camera technology that can show the game in its minute detail. “

Viewer Education
“We can stop explaining the game. Nobody tells me if a guy shoots behind that arc it’s worth three points. I think volleyball’s been on for enough years we don’t need to explain the rules. We don’t explain the libero a lot anymore, which is good. The Olympics on NBC could be different because you’ll get a lot of viewers who don’t normally watch the sport.”

This is one of my favorite debates. There are a lot of aspects and nuances of volleyball to explain that the casual sports fan won’t understand, but we also don’t want to “talk down” to them and the ones that already know volleyball well. Granted, every coach understands the three meter line, but a sports broadcast is not solely intended for that sport’s coaches. It’s a fine line between too much explanation and leaving a viewer in the dark. Finding that line takes experience, so I’m confident we’ll get there sooner than later.

For any of these topics it’s important to remain open-minded and make your voice heard. So shoot me an email ( or hit us up on Twitter (@AVCAVolleyball) and Facebook and let me know what thoughts you have on anything volleyball on TV.

No matter where you stand, make sure you tune in!

(image courtesy Wisconsin Badgers)

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Marketing your Volleyball Program


by @DavidAPortney

(As will appear in June/July issue of Coaching Volleyball Magazine)

“I’m very convinced the more fans that understand the game, the more they’ll fall in love with it.”
                  – Becky Schmidt, Hope College Head Coach

We hear this all of the time from coaches and administrators, but how we go about actually educating the fans and media varies from school-to-school and program-to-program. Some coaches rely more heavily on the sports information directors and communications staff, some do it themselves and others claim they don’t have the time and neglect to do any education, marketing or promotions of their team. At the end of the day, regardless of the size of the school, it is time every head coach plays a significant role in promoting their team and student-athletes.

Dave Shondell (@DaveShondell), head volleyball coach for the nationally-ranked Purdue Boilermakers, puts marketing and promotions as one of his primary job responsibilities. However, many coaches don’t prioritize it, so it falls by the wayside.

“If you as a coach think having people watch your team play is important, then marketing and promotions is a big part of your job,” he said. “Certainly at our school and our mind-set, we want to have a sellout crowd. We want to make volleyball a big deal.”

How do you make volleyball a big deal? You must constantly be engaging and educating your fan base about your program and sport. It’s about creating a culture of volleyball by interacting with the very people that facilitate the culture resulting in packed gyms and screaming crowds. Obviously the players play a significant role as the faces of the program, but the head coach needs to help as one of the more steady faces.

“If you’re looking at the longevity part of it, the coach is hopefully around longer,” said Becky Schmidt (@HopeVolleyball), head coach of nationally-ranked NCAA Division III Hope College. “As a natural consequence, the coach does become the face of the program.  I do think the coach needs to embrace the responsibility, and I’ve certainly tried to do my best as the coach at Hope to represent my student-athletes to the best of my ability.”

The key point both Schmidt and Shondell shared is they view themselves as vehicles to celebrate their players. As I write this, Shondell has nearly 2,300 Twitter followers, but he doesn’t use social media to simply promote himself as coach. He uses his followers to help create the culture that saw the Boilermakers average 2,500 fans per home match. Is it a coincidence the average fan attendance is so close to his Twitter followers? Maybe, but maybe not.

“If I’m only tweeting, ‘Tonight at 7pm we’re playing Minnesota,’ they don’t need me for that,” said Shondell. “I need you to give reasons to come watch. I need to do more than just provide information. I need to motivate, encourage and educate while you do that.”

“I would say the aspect of marketing our program is about the opportunity to educate fans,” Schmidt agreed. “It’s about finding ways to connect fans with our student-athletes and who they are. Not just as volleyball players, but as people.  To celebrate the kinds of things we’re doing on and off the courts, there might be no better way than social media to accomplish those goals.”

While social media might be the most effective method to get the word out, that’s not the only way. How each staff decides to put their best foot forward is up to the programs, but ultimately each head coach must be doing something. Shondell and Schmidt are constantly working with their administrations to develop themed nights, charity events and autograph signings to drum up interest in what they’re doing. Generating exposure for your program used to be almost exclusively convincing the media to cover what you’re doing, but times have changed. You, as the head coach, have the power with your staff to make a difference.

If you don’t think you have the personality, and this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, that’s okay. Just stick your toe in the water and see where it takes you.

“If you’re out there celebrating your kids, celebrating the experiences they’re having, celebrating the successes they’ve made, it becomes about the student-athletes and not about you,” Schmidt says. “If you’re simply the person that’s allowing all of that to happen then all of that goes back to serving the student-athlete. There are many reasons this can be in our self-interest. Having a lot of fans in the stands make it easy to recruit. Having fans be engaged, wanting to come and paying attention helps the players feel more valued.  If that comes at the expense of getting out of your comfort zone a little bit to more effectively showcase the great work their student-athletes are doing, I think that’s worth it.

If you’re ready to put yourself out there, here’s one final piece of advice from Dave Shondell:

“Start slow, be humble, be kind, be yourself, and you can promote the players and your program in your own way. You don’t have to be funny or creative, but you can get on there and start slow. Over time, you’ll grow.”    


(image courtesy AVCA)

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How I’ve Handled my Professional Career


This blog has been reposted from the Ithaca College Sport Management & Media Blog. The author does a good job of explaining my beliefs in handling your career. In case you didn’t know, I’m an Ithaca College alum class of 2009!  For the original post click here. 


by Nicole Johnson, Ithaca College class of 2014

It has been drilled into our brains ever since we were little: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our first grade teachers posed this question before making us scribble with a crayon a stick figure — indicating our dream jobs — on construction paper. Maybe you planned to do what mom or dad does, or maybe you wanted to be a fireman/firewoman, a doctor, a teacher or even a garbage man (in my brother’s case).

As the years go on, this question becomes more pertinent. High school teachers, parents, relatives and college applications harass you with this question. The constant pestering of what you want to focus your career on or what you plan to study only continues. Of course, it was okay not to know but it was almost stressful and embarrassing to admit that. But why should you have it all figured out? Even if you have an idea, do you need to specifically know what career you want, where you want to work and what day-to-day activities you want to perform? Should you really have it all planned out as a high school senior — or even as a college senior?

According to David Portney, you do not need to and it is often better not to have everything planned out. Even four years removed from Ithaca College, he still doesn’t believe you should have it all figured out or be set on a specific plan. As a media relations manager working for the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) — where he has been for close to four years — David still confesses that doesn’t know where his career will take him. “I [take it] sort of day-by-day,” said Portney. “You always have your eyes and ears open.”

Keeping things open is David’s advice. “You have to open your mind to see potential opportunities you have never considered before,” he states. “Don’t try to limit yourself to your options.” Fortunately, David has stuck with his own advice and it has worked out well for him. Portney has worked all over the country since his graduation from IC. Starting in upstate New York, he then moved nearby to Northern New Jersey, then to the Memphis and now he is in Lexington, KY, where he works for the AVCA.

Not only has David explored different cities in the United States throughout his professional career, but his jobs in sports have also varied. From minor league baseball for an affiliated team, to professional football, back to minor league baseball and now to college volleyball, he does not have a team or sport he is fixated on. But, why volleyball — a sport that is mainly dominated by females and isn’t considered one of the four “major” sports? Portney responded, “It wasn’t so much me seeking out volleyball — volleyball sort of found me.”

David’s attitude on life and his future plans not only stem from his laidback personality, but also from his experiences as an Ithaca College Sport Media student. During his collegiate days, David — and other professors and students from IC — worked as a flash quote reporter covering the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. “It was a whole new world,” David recalled. “And to completely immerse yourself in a whole new world is something that benefitted me greatly as a person. I could say in turn that maybe helped professionally [as well].”

Besides his life-changing trips outside of IC, he also had many valuable experiences on campus. During his time on South Hill, David was involved with the student radio stations (WICB and VIC), and also worked with ICTV. He said those experiences were beneficial because students are allowed to run the stations. David valued the hands-on experiences and understood the importance of allowing students to make their own decisions.

As he explains, “I’m going to make mistakes; my friends [and] the people I work with are going to make mistakes, but we learn and fail together and I think that’s important. [Professors] let us make the mistakes so we could learn from them and so it was the freedom to try to be creative and to try new things — even if they failed — that I think Ithaca is really great about. It made all of us enjoy success that much more.”

Creativity allows for freedom and the courage to try new things — which is a life concept Portney has personified. His personal philosophies, combined with professional experiences, help draw a map for young aspiring individuals everywhere — which is exactly what our first grade teacher asked of us many years ago. As college students, perhaps we need to break out the crayons and construction paper every now and then.

– See more at:

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What John Calipari said to make me cringe


by @DavidAPortney

Earlier today, University of Kentucky Head Basketball Coach John Calipari on the set of ESPN College Gameday admitted to the world he doesn’t read a single tweet, he pays an agency for that. This comes to no surprise as this is common practice amongst high profile public figures, but must he admit that on national TV?  Though Twitter has become more mainstream since its inception, it’s still geared towards celebrities giving fans access to their lives both professionally and personally.

There are two primary reasons to follow a celebrity:

1) To gain that access I was just talking about.
2) To make their voice heard by the person they’re tweeting because it’s tough to just shoot them an email.

Those points will not be weighed equally depending on the individual, but that’s the crux of it. So when Calipari says to the world he doesn’t read a single tweet he is snubbing his nose to the people that follow him for reason #2.  While I would prefer he be the one to actually do it, I understand his reasoning but he doesn’t have to tell the world about it!  In fairness, he did mention the tweets are authentically his, but unless he is the one actually doing the tweeting I would say it is not. Once it passes through agency hands it’s not longer in the originator’s voice.

If celebrities are afraid what they say on Twitter will negatively impact their careers then simply stay off it. No harm no foul. Personally, I love it when there are spelling and grammatical errors. It shows the public figure is just like the rest of us tweeting on the go with a casual slip of the iphone finger (just to be clear, I DON’T feel that way when it comes to company accounts, just individuals). It’s real and that’s what it should be.   Hopefully someday Coach Cal and the other agency using celebrities will realize that too.

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The Grammy’s Don’t Matter, but I’ll Watch Anyway


by @DavidAPortney

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of awards shows mainly because I haven’t seen/heard/consumed the majority of the nominees in each category.  Plus, who are these arbitrary committees that decide these awards anyway?  I always laugh when an obscure, independent film/album beats out the productions that were actually seen or heard.

But I watch.  I always do.  As someone who’s spent seemingly my entire life in athletics, I enjoy the competition the awards shows bring out in not only the artists, but the fans.  It has many of the same components we’ll find a week from today in New Jersey: drama, suspense, and even controversy (thanks Kanye).  I watch because people care about these winners, and as a fellow member of society I like being kept in the loop of the water cooler conversation.  This doesn’t mean I actually care about the winners… unless Bruce Springsteen is nominated for any category, in that case it’s life or death.

Perhaps there are already plans to do so, but I hope CBS and the Grammys incorporate a strong social media presence in the broadcast itself.  We love celebrities and for better or for worse, care what they think.  All it takes is a simple #Grammys hashtag stream on the bottom of the screen, and we can join in on the same conversations Taylor Swift and Macklemore are having online and national TV.  I may not normally care about pop culture celebrities’ opinions, but if we’re all observing the same show I wouldn’t mind their perspective, so hopefully CBS gives us the opportunity to see them!  That’s what I’ll be looking out for tonight…how about you?

(image courtesy


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