Aug. 18, 2011
By Jon Cooper
That is the total number of assists returning to the Georgia Tech Volleyball team from the setter position.
Kaleigh Colson has it. She got it in one of the two matches and three sets in which she appeared last season as a freshman.
Colson is the most experienced of the players vying for the starting setter position. True freshman Ali Santi also is in the mix.
It’s nobody fault that Tech will lack experience at such a crucial offensive position, regardless of who gets the nod. It’s just the nature of college athletics.
When you’re battling to get into the NCAA Tournament, as the Yellow Jackets were last season, it wouldn’t have made sense to sit down a senior starter in favor of a freshman, especially when that starter, is one of the best players ever to play the position in school history, as was the case with Mary Ashley Tippins.
Colson learned as much as she could from watching and being around Tippins, who is a student-assistant coach this year and by Colson’s account, was a great mentor last year. She also put in a lot of work with the returning team during the spring and summer.
“I think it was really important,” said the Austin, Texas, native, who starred at Westwood High School, which she led to three area championships and the state quarterfinals as a senior. “The more time we spend together and learn to trust each other is apparent on the court. So I think it was beneficial to work out together. We had open gyms and got to touch a ball together and it builds from there.”
The foundation Colson laid in building relationships with the rest of the team has impressed Tech Volleyball Head Coach Tonya Johnson.
“Kaleigh did a nice job this spring and this summer training-wise and got in the gym and got some reps in,” Johnson said. “She even went to a setting clinic. I think she’s in a pretty good rhythm right now.”
Santi also benefited from getting reps with the team during their informal summer workouts, getting her feet wet on the collegiate level.
“That was so important, especially for me as a setter,” said the Honolulu, Hawaii, native, who led Punahou High School to three straight state runner-up finishes and two league championships. “I got a chance to play with each of the players, instead of just walking into the gym for preseason practice and it being like, ‘Hi, I’m Ali.’ Instead I got to know everyone. It was really helpful.”
While Santi has adjusted well to her new environment and teammates, Johnson feels there is still some adjusting to be done.
“For Ali, it’s going to be catching up to the speed of the game and learning our offensive systems,” said Johnson. “She’s such a hard worker that I don’t think she’ll have any problems with that.”
Senior outside hitter Bailey Hunter, whose success will be directly tied to the ability of the starting setter, sees a win-win proposition with either Colson or Santi.
“This spring Kaleigh did a really good job of developing relationships with the hitters and finding out who likes what set because everyone likes a different set,” said Hunter. “That worked well this summer.
“Ali got here from Hawaii and just got right in,” she continued. “You could see her taking over and taking control. It was really nice to see her work ethic and her unique personality come out, and see how it meshed with us. For them, it’s going to be a tight race. I’m excited about that.”
Being around Hunter and fellow outside hitter and co-captain Monique Mead was exciting for the would-be setters.
“They’re great competitors, they’re great volleyball players, great teammates,” said Colson. “They really helped me a lot this spring stepping into my role and just helping me kind of understand what they needed from me and what I could give to them and what I needed from them. The relationships really developed with my hitters this spring.”
“It makes me a better setter,” added Santi. “It’s good to know that I’m playing with some of the best players in the country.”
While neither backs down from the competition and both want to start, they realize that there is a bigger picture.
“It can be tough at times but you just have to step back and realize it’s not about you,” said Colson. “It’s about this team and what’s best for this team. Obviously, you’re going to do your personal best and you’re going to push everyone on this team no matter who they are, no matter what position they are. You just have to realize it’s not about yourself. It’s about making this team win.”
Until Johnson decides on a starter, she plans to sit back and enjoy monitoring both players’ progress.
“I think it’s going to be a great battle,” she said. “The thing that Kaleigh has over Ali right now is that she has been here for a year and so she’s familiar with what type of sets everybody likes. Ali has to work her way through that in the next couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to a great competition between those two.”