Sept. 22, 2011
By Jon Cooper
A great deal of pride goes along with putting on the uniform, for every athlete at every level.
For the Georgia Tech Volleyball Team, which takes the court tonight at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., against Duke (starting at 7:00 p.m.), and Saturday at Reynolds Gymnasium in Winston Salem, against Wake Forest (a 5:00 p.m. start), the blue or gold jersey isn’t the only shirt the team wears with pride.
The 16 members of Georgia Tech’s squad own a special piece of clothing that not only unites them as teammates, but is symbolic of getting through a period of time that made them better as a team. It’s a t-shirt they had made, and which became a prized possession, during their rigorous spring and summer training sessions, which included rugged Friday workouts labeled “Kicka** Friday.”
“It said ‘K.F.’ on the front for ‘Kicka** Friday’ and they wanted to put on there, ‘I survived.'” said Georgia Tech’s Director of Olympic Sports Player Development and the Volleyball Team’s trainer Scott McDonald. “We started where the first week they had to earn it to get it. Then every Friday, that shirt could be taken away. So they had to earn it again every single Friday.”
Those workouts were especially grueling, but were part of the program’s bigger picture, that of improving the team’s mental toughness. The four-days-a-week regimen was made even tougher because of its 6:00 a.m. starting time. McDonald credited the group for buying in, toughing it out and holding on to those shirts.
“The first few days were, obviously, a little tough,” he said. “But once we got going into it, as a whole I thought they came ready to go. They knew what they had to do. They wanted to keep those shirts. When they got them taken away they weren’t too happy.”
McDonald recalled only taking the shirts away from the entire team once — after a 3-0 loss to Clemson during the spring. But there were days individual shirts were claimed. Those days stuck with the victims.
“I definitely lost mine,” said co-captain Monique Mead. “Mine was never really on the physical side. It was more being able to be a leader while we’re doing our workouts and being able to cheer my teammates on and encourage them. That was my biggest hurdle I had to jump over. It made me better for the season being one of the captains.”
“I lost mine once. It was a big deal,” said sophomore outside hitter Ivona Kolak. “It was more than a shirt. It meant that you actually survived these hard workouts and that you did go through it. Losing the shirt for me was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t do well. I didn’t perform well. I didn’t put in a lot of effort or I didn’t execute well.’ It was meaningful. For me it was important to keep that shirt. I wanted to prove that I could do this and I’m good. Not only competing, but proving to myself, ‘I can do this.’
Mead said that the goals of improving the physical condition and mental toughness of the team were met.
“The training this summer was probably the hardest period of training we’ve been through yet,” she said. “It was always really intense training but I think it was for the greater good because we had to grind it out, we had to work hard and it made us better for the season. Being able to encourage our team and push everybody even when we were pushed to our limit. I think that made us a lot better. It made me a lot better.”
While McDonald was proud of the collective effort of the team, two players who stood out were Kolak and sophomore middle blocker Quinn Evans.
“Quinn Evans was someone who came a long way just from her freshman year,” said McDonald. “Not necessarily so much from the mental aspect but from the conditioning aspect. I think she came a long way from where she was in the beginning.
“And Ivona, So, I think that was a big adjustment for her in the beginning,” he said of the Kastel Gomilica, Croatia, native, who he recalled had never been on a treadmill until coming to Atlanta. “She picked it up and when she went home Christmas she did what she was supposed to do because when she came back she did a great job.”
The off-season program made a big impression on Evans and Kolak, who sighted noticeable team and individual growth.
“When I got here I wasn’t fast. I couldn’t jump high and I wasn’t strong,” said Kolak, who has 10 kills and an assist in four matches. “It was really good to see that I could actually jump, that I could be fast and that I could be strong. So I improved a lot. Every single day I’m like, ‘Thank you, Scott for working me so hard this spring.’ It’s something that I can see the results and I’m so happy that I can actually do these things that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do.”
“They have definitely whipped us into shape to say the least,” said Evans, San Antonio, Texas, native, who has one kill and one block in two matches. “You can see, everybody, how much more physical we are. Everybody is bulked up, almost and we’re all so strong and in so much better shape than we were. It’s apparent on the court because we’ll be in Game Five against a team that hasn’t been through as vigorous training as we have and they’re sucking wind and we still have plenty of endurance and are ready to go for the long haul.”
That scenario played out on Aug. 27, the third match of the season, when Tech came from 2-0 down against Louisville to wear down and eventually beat the Cardinals in five games. Evans recalled that day both the physical and mental-toughness aspects of the off-season workouts kicked in.
“When we were down two games going into that third game, we all looked at each other and we kind of knew,” Evans said. “It was ‘We have been through way too much. Having been to Hell and back together, we know that we can come through anything if we really put our minds to it.’
Seeing it all come together was special for McDonald.
“I’m not going to lie. It was nice,” he said. “It was nice to have parents come up to you and tell you that you can tell the better-conditioned team won and the other team started making some mistakes down the stretch. The girls earned it. They didn’t quit. It’s nice to know that hopefully some of the stuff that we did in the off-season helped get them ready and helped them learn to push through things.”
Of course, they have the t-shirts to remind them.