#STINGDAILY: Spring Surprise

March 29, 2013

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

There’s no better time to experiment for the fall season than in the spring.

Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Tonya Johnson will be using this spring to do the kind of chemistry experimentation that would almost qualify for a government grant.

When the Yellow Jackets take the O’Keefe Gym floor today for their three-match day against, in order, Kennesaw State (9 a.m.), South Alabama (11:30 a.m.) and, finally, Georgia (3:15 p.m.) they’ll unveil a team that is drastically different than years past, and especially from last year. Gone are outside hitters Monique Mead, one of the most prolific players in school, not to mention ACC, history, Bailey Hunter, another vital piece up front and in the locker room, last year’s leading blocker Annie Czarnecki, and both Liberos, Nicki Meyer and Susan Carlson.

Not only are they short on experience, they’re short on players, period.

“It’s funny because we’ve always had 10 to 12 kids for spring but we’ve never had as few attackers as we have now. We have three pins basically and we have two middles,” said Johnson. “It’s kind of interesting to think of the dynamics of this team because we have two DS’s (defensive specialists) and two setters amongst our group. It’s kind of interesting to train with just that amount of people since the last couple of springs we’ve had Mo anchoring the right side and we’ve always had three pins in the spring. So everybody is getting a fair amount of repetition, which is really good. This is kind of a time when we kind of throw some things out and we’ve broken some things down and just kind of re-taught some things from a technical standpoint. I think that’s been really good for us.”

How good might not necessarily be indicative in wins and losses.

“There are things that we’re going to be focusing on tomorrow, and I think that’s important for us,” said Johnson. “It’s going to be a good gauging point for us to see exactly what we need to work on and what we need to get better at going into pre-season practice in August.

“I’m looking just to see how our returners respond to someone else on the other side of the net,” she added. “We did a little playdate with Georgia State before Spring Break. We didn’t play. We just did some drills and it turned out to be fun. But [today] we’re actually playing three opponents and just trying to see what we need to work on. There’s a lot of different people on the floor after losing five seniors but I think they’ve responded pretty well. So I’m interested to see in what we look like as well.”

One person Johnson knows she’ll see is the team’s lone returning starter, senior setter Kaleigh Colson, a two-year starter, a two-time All-ACC Academic Team selection (the only returning Jacket of four on that team last year), and the Conference’s second leading assister last season with 10.53 per set. Colson’s presence is a good thing.

“Kaleigh provides a calmness for this team,” said Johnson. “She’s not someone that gets rattled very easily and most of the time if she is rattled you never see it because she’s got the same expression on her face all the time. So I think she provides a calming factor for this group and they look for her to lead them. Is she the most vocal leader that we’ve ever had? No. But she leads through her play and she leads through her hard work.”

Johnson is excited about the quality of the hard work she’s seen on the floor and the potential competition for playing time.

There’s exciting young talent ready to blossom up front, with sophomore middle blocker Channell Clark-Bibbs, the teams’ fourth-leading hitter (117 kills, .258 hitting percentage, 57 blocks), as well as some veteran talent in senior outside hitter Jenn Percy (110 kills, .241), senior outside hitter Ivana Kolak and senior middle blocker Quinn Evans (38 blocks). Junior Zoey Morton and sophomore Wimberly Wilson will be there to battle it out for Libero.

Johnson said the group of incoming freshmen also should be excited about the opportunity that’s presented itself and that fans will be exited in seeing them compete for floor time.

“To be honest, I think all five of them have an opportunity to play very early in their careers,” she said. “I look for all of them to add something in their own unique way and bring their personality to the team. I think people are really going to like this bunch. They’re a blue-collar bunch and I think that it’s their goal to find their way on the court. I think it’s going to be some pretty good competition come pre-season practice time.”

While the competition expects to be fierce on the court, Johnson insisted that it doesn’t extend to seeing rival Georgia on the other side of the net.

“No hostility,” she said. “It means more to the people that have graduated from those schools. I look at it as a healthy rivalry that is good for both schools, that’s great for both programs. You look at what [Georgia Coach Lizzy Stemke]’s done in a short period of time and you look what we’ve done here at Georgia Tech and I think we’re two programs that are on the rise and have some great things in store for us in our future.”

The Jackets will have two more spring exhibitions, traveling to Murfreesboro, Tenn., next weekend to take on Middle Tennessee State, then closing out the Spring the following weekend by hosting Auburn.

Here’s a look at the opposition for this weekend:

Georgia
Head Coach: Lizzy Stemke, third season (25-35, 15-25)
2011-12: 14-16, 8-12, 5th, SEC West)
All-Time Series: 14-21

Georgia Tech and Georgia meet up in a precursor to their regular season match-up during the 2013-14 season, wrapping up the Saturday slate of games.

While the match is an exhibition, the Yellow Jackets would like to continue their mastery of the Bulldogs, which has seen them win seven straight matches and 14 of the last 15, including a 3-1 victory last season in Athens.

The Bulldogs ranked 11th in the SEC in hitting last season and 10th in opponents’ hitting. They’ll be led by senior middle blocker Elena Perri, who ranked 12th in the SEC in hitting percentage (.292) and was eighth in blocks. Junior outside hitter Tirah Le’au also returns. She was 20th in the conference in kills with 309 (2.83 per set). Setting things up is junior setter Kaylee Kehoe, who averaged 6.18 per set (12th). Defensively, senior Libero/defensive specialist Allison Summers is among the best in the SEC at digging, ranking third last season with 539 (4.81 per set). Tech needs to be aware of the serving of junior outside hitter Chloe Buckendahl, who was seventh in aces with 28.

Kennesaw State
Head Coach: Keith Schunzel, first season
2011-12: 16-17, 5-13 (9th in Atlantic Sun Conference)
All-Time Series vs. Georgia Tech: No previous meetings

The Owls have a new head coach in Keith Schunzel, who takes over after two years as lead assistant coach in Kentucky. He inherits a club that was fifth in hitting percentage in the Atlantic Sun Conference and ninth against opposing hitters. On offense, KSU lost two of its top three hitters from last season but returns junior outside hitter Keyaira Stevenson (317 kills, 2.99 per set) and senior outside hitter Emily Bean (199/1.91/S). They’ll be fed by senior setter Sara Metroka, who finished fourth in the A-Sun in assists with 10.35 per set. Defensively, senior Libero Camille Pedraza ranked third in the A-Sun in digs with 4.66 per set (513).

South Alabama
Head Coach: Amy Hendrichovsky (second year, 13-17, 6-9)
2011-12: 13-17, 6-9 (5th in Sun Belt Conference)
All-Time Series vs. Georgia Tech: 2-2

The Jaguars will look to continue their improvement and make some headway in the Sun Belt Conference under second-year Head Coach Amy Hendrichovsky. Last season, South Alabama finished one game out of third place in the Sun Belt East. They’ll look to continue their solid hitting, good for fifth in the SBC, and shore up the defense, which was eighth in opponents’ hitting. The Jags will be led by the junior tandem of middle blocker Toriandria Jones, who was seventh in hitting (.314), and outside hitter Meilissa Waelter, who was eighth in kills (3.08/set). USA features has a strong service game (they were fourth in the Sun Belt in aces with 144, 1.24 per set), and return three of the Sun Belt’s top 10 servers in Waelter (25 aces, fifth), sophomore setter Emily Hundt (32, 8th), and sophomore outside hitter Savannah Steward (31, 10th). Georgia Tech has won the last two matches between the schools, 3-0, 3-0, but it’s been a while since the last match, back in 1998.

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