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Rotation 2: Outside Hitters

Aug. 14, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Georgia Tech’s outside hitters plan to have a big surprise in store for opponents this year.

“We have basically all of our starters. We have all of our main leaders and our starters,” said sophomore Ashley Askin. “Teams are going to look at us and say, ‘Georgia Tech? I hate playing them. They’re a hard team to play.’”

The Jackets plan to be a lot tougher to play than last season featuring a deep foursome of outside hitters, junior Teegan Van Gunst and sophomores Ashley Askin, Gabriela Stavnetchei and Anna Kavalchuk. The group is on a mission after finishing 12th in the ACC in hitting percentage (.216), and kills (12.75 per match) last year.

Making that mission happen will ride on the arm of Van Gunst. The junior from Fayetteville, Ga., led the Jackets in kills per set (3.32, 10th in the ACC), and kills (392) and was second on the team in aces (20), and digs (312, 2.64 per set). Van Gunst, who started all 31 matches took a huge leap forward from her freshman season and is expected to make an equivalent, if not greater, jump this season.

“It has been fun to see her development,” said head coach Michelle Collier. “She has grown a lot as a player. She’s definitely very physical — great blocker, great attacker — but I think she has also learned a lot about the game and her position on the outside and mixing things up, not just being about power all the time, being able to mix up her shots and also focus on her passing and defense. She’s going to be an important part of our success.”

Teegan, whose twin sister, Annika, is expected to see a lot of time on the right side, knew she needed to diversify her game and continue to grow, and focused on that during her off-season workouts.

“Me, personally, seeing the block better on the outside and knowing what shot to hit when,” she said. “Just the more mental part of the game.”

Of course, she’ll continue to lead by example.

“That’s part of it,” she said. “I did that last year but more of a leadership role in communication on the court when things aren’t going well, trying to pick everyone up, taking on more of that responsibility than I did last year.”

The three sophomores are locked in on Van Gunst and plan to make a bigger impact. They have what it takes to produce, as Askin and Stavnetchei have a year under Collier under their belts, and Kavalchuk, while new to Georgia Tech, is battle-tested internationally.

Each brings something to the table.

Askin brings pure power to the front line.

“Ashley is probably the heaviest arm that we have in our gym. She hits the ball hard,” said Collier. “She’s learning, she’s getting a little more confident with her ball control. I think that’s going to be a key position for all of our outsides, is passing. It’s going to be something that they’re going to have to be very consistent with. Ashley is getting more and more comfortable doing that. We see her being another one that is going to contribute a lot. She can play on the outside, she can help us play on the right side. She gives us a little bit more flexibility.”

The Louisville, Ky., native played in 47 sets last season (22 matches), with 53 kills (1.13), and a 1.40 percentage. She showed what she could do, hitting .455 against Kennesaw State and .333 with 10 kills in 21 swings against Clemson. She’s hoping to show that form more consistently.

“I can hit really well, I can block really well, I can pass really well but I need to become a better leader in consistently doing those things because last year I was a little streaky,” she said. “I had some really, really good games and I had games where I didn’t do as much. This year I want to become a leader and have people look at me and say, ‘She’s an all-around great player,’ because I’m consistent and I work hard and I’m determined to keep doing those things.”

Stavnetchei played in 54 sets (25 matches, including one start) as a freshman, with 12 kills and four aces, three of them coming against Kennesaw State. Collier believes the Curitiba, Brazil, native, has benefitted from her freshman year as well as from her workouts over the summer.

“Gabby has done really well this spring. She’s gotten a lot stronger,” said Collier. “I think she’s a little more now adjusted to the way we train in the U.S., the speed and just really going after it, so I think she’s a little more comfortable on the court than she was a year ago. She’s able to play a little more of her game now that she’s a little more comfortable in her skin and the environment.”

Collier hopes that Kavalchuk can feel that same comfort following her inaugural spring and summer in Atlanta. Anna (pronounced “Anya”) starred in her native Belarus, playing in the nation’s top amateur league as well as on the Belarus National Youth Team. She helped the team win the 2012 Eastern European Volleyball Zonal Association Championships and participated in qualifying rounds of the European Youth Championships in 2013.

“Anna has played internationally, she has played against some very talented players and she brings a lot of talent but I think she is kind of dealing with that adjustment right now,” said Collier. “The tempo of the game and just practices in general and weight lifting and all those other things are a lot different than what she’s used to. So she’s mentally adjusting to all of those things. I think every day she gets more and more comfortable in the gym and she’s able to loosen up a little bit and play her game. We have all the trust in her abilities and what she can do and how she can help us. So it will be interesting to see how she does once we get into playing games. It’s exciting to have someone with her experience here.”

Expectations are high for the OH’s, who are counting on being building off last year.

“We’ve definitely gotten a lot better. We can see improvements in our defense and our serving,” said Van Gunst. ”Definitely we have a lot more chemistry. We get together better off the court, too, which has really helped us be able to keep each other accountable on the court. It’s very good.”

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