Sept. 6, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Something very special is coming to O’Keefe Gym on Friday.
It’s the annual match between Georgia Tech and Georgia. The match, which begins at 7:00 p.m., headlines the first day of the weekend’s Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational. The tournament, which runs through Saturday, also includes Samford and Mercer, but the main event is the match with UGA.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tech volleyball head coach Tonya Johnson made sure that anyone within earshot knew what was coming.
While no one really needs a tutorial on the impact of any Georgia Tech-Georgia meeting, that she got the opportunity to meet the media and hold court, on topics ranging from the tournament, her program, the match with the Bulldogs and the sport spoke volumes.
While Georgia leads the overall series 21-12, Tech has dominated the series in recent years, having won five straight matches over UGA — including a pair of dramatic five-set wins in the Johnson Era — and 12 of the last 13.
Johnson said there is more than just pride on the line when the schools clash.
“I think it has a huge impact on recruiting for the state of Georgia,” Johnson said. “We have a good share of Georgia kids within our program and Georgia does as well. So I certainly think it impacts recruiting at a very high rate.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson, an LSU alum, then an assistant coach at the University of Texas, talked about her first taste of the rivalry.
“It was my first match here as the head coach,” she said (the Jackets won a five-setter in O’Keefe). “So, obviously I was a bit overwhelmed, especially when I walked into the gym. I usually come out 30 minutes before the match. To walk out 30 minutes before the match in front of a packed house was just unbelievable to me. I expect the same on Friday.” (Johnson estimated that there are still around 400 tickets left for the match but they are going fast.)
Johnson said she was concerned that her young team might not necessarily know about the depth of emotion in the rivalry.
To make sure they were made aware of just how deep-seeded the rivalry is, she called in couple of experts — Tech’s men’s and women’s tennis head coaches and former Yellow Jacket teammates, Kenny Thorne and Bryan Shelton — to address the team following Tuesday morning’s practice.
“They’ve played in it, they’ve coached in it. Who better to tell their story than two former players here?” Johnson said. “They went through the whole shebang about what it felt like to be a part of it, for men’s tennis, what it felt like beating Georgia for the first time this past season since 1988 and just the rivalry of it, how healthy it is and how big of a rivalry it is. It got the kids really pumped up.”
Johnson expects the crowd at O’Keefe to be pumped up as well. It will be a welcome change for the team after last weekend’s Rice Tournament in Houston, Texas.
“There’s a big difference,” she said, with a laugh. “This past weekend was about creating our own energy. We had a lot of fan support amongst our parents and a lot of Houston GT alums who were there and that was great, but certainly nothing like playing at home in front of your home crowd.”