Oct. 28, 2010
By Jon Cooper
It’s said that the night is always darkest before the dawn.
For the 2010 Georgia Tech volleyball team, the weekend of Oct. 24-26 was that proverbial darkest hour.
That weekend’s home losses at the hands of Duke (2-3) then Wake Forest (0-3) could have spelled an early end to the season and led to thoughts of next season.
Instead, thanks to speech from head coach Tonya Johnson following the Wake loss, and the team’s response, the Jackets can think about preparing for postseason.
First, though, they are prepared to show the Demon Deacons and Blue Devils a side of them and an attitude they didn’t show the first time around. Tech will get the chance starting tonight, when they invade Reynolds Gym in Winston Salem, then Saturday when they hit Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
Johnson’s speech simply suggested treating the remainder of the ACC portion of the schedule as a new season.
“I thought our focus was at a different level,” said Johnson. “We were committed to coming in here and getting better and turning our season around and we’ve done that.”
“Tonya phrased it, ‘We’re 0-0. Play like you haven’t lost,'” recalled senior LIbero Jordan McCullers. “So we went out there like we had nothing to lose and it was effective, for sure.”
Senior setter Mary Ashley Tippins felt that the speech’s simplicity was just right for a group that already knew what they were doing wrong.
“We weren’t really playing as a team, doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Tippins. “The coaches were constantly telling us we have to be disciplined, we have to do our job. People got that and started really focusing in on doing what they’re supposed to do.”
A seven-match winning streak followed, during which Tech dropped a total of seven games.
Like all streaks, it started with that first match, at Virginia. The bus ride to Charlottesville gave the team time to bond and let sink in what was at stake. They played with a sense of urgency that weekend unseen to that point.
That Friday, after spotting UVA the first set, they took a pair of two-point games then romped home, 25-17, to win, 3-1. Monique Mead had 22 kills, while freshman Jennifer Percy posted a career-high 17.
The next night against at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Bailey Hunter came up big, converting a career-high 24 kills, as Tech rallied from two games to one down to win. The Jackets showed character, closing the fourth game on a 10-2 run to win, 25-19, and the deciding game on a 10-4 run, winning 15-9, to take the match.
“It was important for our self-confidence, for our season,” said Johnson. “We had so many things riding on that weekend and we were road warriors.”
“It was huge,” agreed Tippins. “We all were just kind of sick of it and that weekend we all played really well. Virginia Tech was a huge win for us because last year they dominated us at their home (the Hokies swept the Jackets) and we were really ready to beat them at their place. It’s a hard place to play.”
The five-game victory over Tech was only the Jackets’ second in five-game matches (they had been 1-4) and made for a sweet trip home. It also confirmed to them that they were ready to get on a roll.
The next weekend, again on the road, Tech took a five-gamer in Miami, then swept No. 20 Florida State in Tallahassee.
“We were on kind of a hot streak at the time and we’re the kind of team that, you see that 20 next to their name and it makes you want to win it that much more,” said McCullers. “For us, it doesn’t register as, ‘Oh, this team is good. They’re ranked, they’re No. 1 in the ACC’ or whatever. We don’t get scared off by that. It makes our hunger that much stronger.”
Tech came home and routed North Carolina and N.C. State by 3-1 scores the next weekend, then swept Boston College at O’Keefe last Friday before being stunned by Maryland, 3-0, last Saturday.
Even with that loss, there’s a new look and feel to the team. They no longer simply want to win, but expect to.
“You can definitely see more confidence,” said Tippins. “Especially from the people who came in in new roles this year like Jennifer Percy, she’s getting more comfortable in her swings and in her shot selection, Nicki Meyer back there passing and Susan [Carlson]. It’s been going great. Saturday, that was a minor bump.”
“The attitude changed,” agreed McCullers. “We didn’t just want to win. We are out there to BEAT teams. Tonya always talks about making sure you’re hungry all the time. That hunger drives us. The biggest thing we’ve been working on is staying hungry. That’s really what’s been our motivational point.”
Tippins, who admits to having a long memory when it comes to opponents’ successes, hasn’t forgotten Alumnae Weekend and is eager to help exact a measure of revenge.
The idea of paying back the teams that nearly derailed their season is nice. Doing so on the road is fitting.
“We’ve done some really, really good things on the road and came back and had a good run at home, with the exception of Saturday,” said Johnson. “Now we get to go back on the road and showcase our talent, again. Hopefully we’ll be road warriors again.”