California Dreamin'

Dec. 4, 2009

by Jon Cooper, Contributing Editor
OSR Sting EXTRA

According to weather.com, today’s weather in Los Angeles is going to be mostly sunny, with a high of 73 degrees.

Somebody should report that to the Georgia Tech women’s volleyball team, because unlike in The Riviera’s 1964 hit, they’re not out there having fun in the warm California sun.

“I’m treating this as a business trip and I hope they are as well,” said coach Tonya Johnson. “When you get to stages like this in your season, you’re playing for a lot and so it’s going to be really important for us to be really focused on what the task is.”

Johnson has been down this road before, both playing and coaching in a Final Four. Most of her team, however, has never even experienced the NCAA Tournament, forget about reaching the final weekend of it.

Of course, at this point of the season, the only place they were expected to be going was to class.

“We were picked to finish eighth in the ACC and we finished third and got an NCAA Tournament bid,” said Johnson. “So I take my hat off to our kids for all the hard work that they’ve done so far.”

The Yellow Jackets will start out third in the Los Angeles sub-regional, and will have their work cut out for them as they face No. 2 Baylor (22-9) today. Should they advance, they’ll face what amounts to a road game against either UCLA or Long Beach State.

But this group of Volleybees doesn’t scare. Not after what they’ve done. They challenged for the ACC crown, went 21-9 (one more win than last season), 15-5 in the conference (three better than last season), handed Florida State its only conference loss — in Tallahassee, no less — and earned the right to play in the NCAA Tournament. This is Tech’s first trip to the NCAAs since 2004, and no player on the roster has been, not even seniors Chrissy DeMichelis and Brittany Roderick.

They are understandably ecstatic.

“It’s really like a dream come true,” said outside hitter DeMichelis, who earned her first All-ACC selection this season. “It’s something that we’ve always worked hard for every year and finally, our senior year we get to achieve it. It’s great.”

“It’s crazy.You really don’t understand how important and how exciting getting to the NCAAs is until you’re a senior,” added middle blocker Roderick. “Whether we stay there for one game or go all the way, we’re really excited for the experience. Especially for our freshmen, too. It’s going to be a great experience for them because we’re a really young team.”

This is a team that has six freshmen and three sophomores on a 13-woman roster.

Of course, one of those freshmen is Monique Mead, who was named ACC Freshman of the Year. Johnson credits the seniors for helping her through her first collegiate season.

“The hardest thing for freshmen is to keep up with the pace of the game,” said Johnson. “With her physicality she hasn’t had any problems doing that this fall. The great thing about Chrissy and ‘rick is that they’ve taken her under their wing and they’ve been very good with her. They’ve played a key part in getting this young team to believe and getting everybody on the same page.”

The defining moment for this team actually may have derived from their ability to bounce back from an emotionally devastating weekend in mid-November, when they lost home matches to Miami (3-2 after taking the first two sets) and ACC Champ Florida State (3-0) .

Talk of an ACC title heading in, had turned to talk of salvaging the season. Johnson knew the team needed something to shake things up and quick.

So Tonya Johnson brought in the heavy artillery, calling on football coach Paul Johnson to address her team. He gave the team a pep talk, a symbol to rally around — a bag of marbles, with each player getting one — and a rallying cry, “For All The Marbles.”

That weekend, Tech didn’t lose a set in taking out Virginia and Virginia Tech. Then, on the final weekend, they battled at Clemson, digging deep to pull out the final set, 15-7, after a demoralizing 25-13 fourth-set loss.

Now it’s the big dance, starting with Baylor.

Most of the Tech team didn’t know much about the Bears, who finished 22-9, 11-9 and tied for fourth in the Big XII, but Johnson did.

“I know a lot about Baylor,” said Johnson, who’d coached against them twice a year for the previous six years while an assistant at the University of Texas. “With what I know about them and with the way we’ve been playing recently we match up real well against them. I look forward to it being a good match. I look forward to it being a battle as well.”

Experience shouldn’t play a factor, as the Bears, who dropped three of their last four matches, haven’t been to the NCAAs since 2001.

As the Volleybees prepared to go to their first collective postseason play since 2004 (the ACC stopped playing a postseason tournament following the ’04 Tournament) DeMichelis and Roderick prepare for what could be their last match. They’re determined to enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.

“I just hope that we just play with joy and excitement,” said DeMichelis. “That’s always been a factor that we’ve had, that we have fun together and we play with laughter and joy. But when we tense up, we have to just let it go. Be resilient and keep up the tenacity and the endurance through every point, then every rally and even with the tough times, just keep striving.”

“Going in, we have nothing to lose at all,” added Roderick. “Obviously we’d like to go far but we have nothing to lose. So let’s go play it, play with all our heart, leave it all out there and see what happens.”

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