Aug. 26, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Michelle Collier teams have a penchant for making quick improvements.
At Jacksonville University, in 2013, Collier’s second year as head coach, the Dolphins went 30-4, 16-2 in Atlantic Sun play, and earned the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth in nine years, bouncing back from a 10-24, 7-11 in conference play record in 2012.
Last season, her first season in charge at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets went 13-18, 6-12 in ACC play.
That sets up year two and expectations are very high.
“I think definitely we learned a lot that first year. We were able to see our competition, what we need to do, where we need to improve so we can compete better against the teams we’re going to be competing against,” said Collier. “We definitely learned that. Our culture in the gym and outside of the gym has been getting better and better. I think the kids enjoy their experience, and are working hard and are looking forward to a successful season this year.”
The team returns five of the seven players that started the final match of last season, a 3-0 sweep of Clemson at O’Keefe Gym, as well as returning four of its top five hitters — junior OH Teegan Van Gunst and twin sister RS/Middle Blocker Annika Van Gunst, and MBs sophomore Sydney Wilson and junior Lauren Pitz — two-year starting setter Rebecca Martin, and Libero/Defensive Specialist London Ackermann.
The opportunity to grow together last year is something they expect to be advantageous.
“Definitely we have a lot more chemistry,” said Teegan, who ranked 10th in the ACC with 3.32 kills per set (392 total kills).
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot of experience together under our belts,” said Martin, a junior whose 9.0 assists per set (1,044 on the season), ranked her seventh in assists in the ACC. “We all came in the same time, the twins and I, and so it’s been a while but we’re really starting to get a feel for exactly what we’re looking for. I know exactly where to put the ball for Teegan, I know exactly where to put the ball for Annika, and Ashley, that’s still building and is getting a lot better. The overall consistency with all the hitters is improving, especially now, getting all these reps in. It’s really fun.”
In addition to the returnees, there are key new faces, sophomore setter Gabby Benda played in 31 matches, starting 23, as a freshman at Marquette, while sophomore OH Anna Kavalchuk played for her native Belarus junior national team, while freshman Lauren Frerking, the team’s lone freshman, impressed and had a solid day in the Gold/White.
This weekend’s season opener at O’Keefe Gym, the GT Courtyard by Marriott Atlanta Midtown Invite, will feature the Jackets playing four matches in two days, starting on Friday, playing a pair of defending conference champions, Siena, the MAAC defending champion, at noon, then Coastal Carolina, the champion of the Big South, which features the defending Conference Player- and Freshman of the Year in OH Leah Hardeman, in a Gold Out match at 7:30 p.m.. On Saturday, Tech plays UT-Martin of the Ohio Valley Conference, at noon then concludes with The Citadel (Southern) at 7:30 p.m., both of whom have new coaches.
“We definitely know they’re not going to be easy,” said Collier. “Siena won its conference last year and made the NCAA Tournament, so we’re expecting a very tough match with them. The same scenario [is true] with Coastal Carolina. The other two teams, UT-Martin and The Citadel, both have new head coaches, so the players are going to be excited and play for their new coaches, show them what they have and I know they’re going to give us their best effort. We’re going to need everybody ready to play, ready to contribute and be able to play at a high level for four matches.”
Playing a pair of doubleheaders on back-to-back days will be important in improving the team’s endurance, an area that Van Gunst feels needed work.
“That was something that we got out of the Gold/White Scrimmage,” she said. “We need to work on our endurance as a team because, coming out of the gate, the first couple of sets in the Gold/White Scrimmage were great — high-level execution of volleyball. But toward the end, you could tell people were getting tired from all the matches. So it will definitely help going into conference play, where you could potentially be playing two five-setters on a weekend. The endurance part of it is something that we’ll be working on. Even when we are tired we have to keep pushing through the next point, through the next point. Each and every point.”
Finding answers has been a theme during fall practice. This weekend will be another opportunity to problem-solve.
“We want to put ourselves in as many real-match situations as possible because we want to see what kind of things arise, as far as problems and solutions,” said Collier. “So the more we play the more we put ourselves in different situations, we see different opponents, we have to defend and attack different strengths and weaknesses. It really helps us do a variety of things that we might have to use when it comes Conference season. So the more we can test it out and the more we can work on it and get better, so that by Conference time we’re playing our best volleyball, that’s what we’re doing.”
The Yellow Jackets did a lot to get to this point, a spirited summer, during which they practiced on their own five days a week, then a strong fall, during which Collier stressed fundamentals and areas where the team needed improvement, especially defense.
The latter showed last Saturday.
“I think our defense is looking very good. The Gold/White Scrimmage showed that off,” said Van Gunst. “The transition game, the offensive side of the game is looking good and the obviously defensive played it well. We’re looking good.”
They’re also feeling good. Passion is one of Collier’s favorite words and was a buzzword throughout the summer and fall.
“It’s definitely a different atmosphere from since I got here,” said Martin. “It’s a lot more fun, there’s a lot more passion involved in the game and that’s really nice to see a different change of atmosphere.”
Askin also has noticed a change in the team, which was picked to finish 10th in the ACC preseason poll, and believes other teams will see it as well.
“We worked very hard this summer. We lifted, ran and did open gyms, and I think we grew a lot together as a team, communication and growing closer together,” said Askin. “We got a lot stronger and faster, and I think we’re a lot further ahead than we were last year going into this season. We have basically all of our starters. We have all of our main leaders and our starters. Teams are going to see us this year and they’re going to look at us and say, ‘Georgia Tech? I hate playing them. They’re a lot better. They’re a hard team to play.’”
They’ll show how hard on Friday.
Ideally it will result in a winning record, something Georgia Tech hasn’t had since 2012, and a return to the NCAA Tournament, a place the Jackets have not been since 2011.
Collier certainly can’t wait to see it unfold and, if history means anything, she should be excited. After all, this is year two.
“It’s finally here,” she said. “Since the last match of the fall last year they have been focused on making sure that when they get back to this point this year that they would be a better team than we were at this point last year and I think we did that.
“I think that the girls have worked hard, committed themselves to the team and to the program and worked on every aspect of the game, the fundamentals to the physical to the skill side of it,” she added. “So they’ve invested in it, they put some really hard work to it and they deserve to go out there and have some fun and really start playing. I’m excited for them, I’m excited for the season and I hope that we can stay consistent with what we can do and have the season that we would like to have.”