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Rotation No. 4: Right Side Hitters

Aug. 20, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

The right side hitter position isn’t for everybody.

It requires a key player on defense and, if head coach Michelle Collier has her way, a more important one on offense.

“It’s a position that is very, very important,” said Collier. “They are usually blocking the outside hitters on the other side, so blocking is definitely something that is very, very important, just setting up our defense. They have big responsibilities because they defend very key attackers on the other side and they also have a big responsibility killing balls and scoring points for our side of the court.

“The space you have to hit is a little bit smaller and the ball is traveling a little bit faster to get to you,” Collier added. “You don’t really have that much angle to see the block and everything. But it’s one that in our gym we want to make sure it carries a heavy load in our offense.”

Collier has plenty of candidates seeking to shoulder that burden, including junior Annika Van Gunst, returning sophomores Ashley Askin and Gabriela Stavnetchei, and sophomore newcomer Anna Kavalchuk.

Just who gets the starting nod on the right side probably won’t be known until the season-opening GT Courtyard by Marriott Atlanta Midtown Invite, a weekend-long, five-team tournament which begins on Aug. 28 — Georgia Tech opens at noon on Friday, the 28th against Siena then plays Coastal Carolina in a “Gold Out” match beginning at 7:30 p.m.. This Saturday’s Gold/White Scrimmage, taking place at O’Keefe Gym beginning at 3 p.m., will go a long way in determining the starter.

“It’s a big role and it’s fun that we have a couple of kids that can rotate between the outside and the right side position,” said Collier. “Annika plays right side and middle then Ashley and Anna, they can play both positions as well. So it’s good to always have somebody that can help out on that spot. At different times we can get different things from each player so it’s nice to have that diversity.”

Van Gunst has the inside track, having played there a lot last year.

“Annika has always been physical, she has been a big part of our offense,” said Collier. “She will continue to do that. She’s also somebody that plays all the way around for us and is actually part of our serve-receive. Her ball-control, her defense, these are all things she’s going to have to continue to do well consistently. She also gives us an option to put her in the middle. She’s very versatile.”

Last season she displayed her versatility with 17 double-digit-kill matches, eight with double-digit digs and six double-doubles. Her 326 kills ranked second behind twin sister, Teegan’s 392, her 212 digs ranked fourth.

“For right side you have a little more time in transition (than middle blocker) but you also play defense as a right side. So you’ve got to work more on your all-around game,” said the 6-0, Fayetteville, Ga., native, who played and started all 31 matches as a sophomore.

“Whereas middle it’s mainly just offensive and blocking, right side you work on your attack and you work on blocking and then you also work on defense.

Van Gunst, who has trained at both middle blocker and right side hitter, is the front-runner, but Askin, Stavnetchei and Kavalchuk, although less experienced, are still serious contenders for court time.

Askin, a 6-0 Louisville, Ky., native had 53 kills in 22 matches, with 16 digs and an .882 serve-receiving percentage last season. Her powerful arm and nose for the ball make her an option for the right side. It’s simply a matter of doing what she’s always done.

“A lot of people say I have a heavy arm, or I have the hardest swing on the team but that’s just how I’ve always been,” she said. “I just go up and attack. That’s how I learned from the beginning. Just go after it. It’s just how I was taught.”

Kavalchuk, a 5-11 native of Minsk, Belarus, learned how to play volleyball overseas and brings international experience, having played with the Belarus National Youth Team, is proving a quick study in adapting to the Georgia Tech way.

“Anna has played internationally, she has played against some very talented players and she brings a lot of talent,” said Collier. “The tempo of the game and 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 with her teammates.”

“When the camp started it was a little difficult for me because the practices were so different,” said Kavalchuk. “There were a lot of new exercises for me. Sometimes it was tough for me to understand what I needed to do but I saw how the girls did it and I tried to do the same. Now I try to adjust to the games, how to play because they play faster volleyball here.

“I think the hardest part was the first two weeks here because I was adjusting with my English, to understand everything,” she added. “The toughest part was my classes because I was not so sure what the professor was saying but now I think I’ve gotten used to it. I think I’ve gotten used to the way the girls work in the lifting room. I’m ready. I just want to play more with the girls and to get used to the full game with them.”

Stavnetchei went through that adjustment last season. This year, a year older and a year more familiar with American volleyball, the 5-10 native of Curitiba, Brazil, is something of a dark-horse candidate for the right side but is an intriguing possibility to see some time there. She’s a stronger, more efficient player than the freshman that had 12 kills, 15 digs and a .880 serve-receiving percentage in 25 matches (one start).

“My first year here was a lot of adaptation since I came here from Brazil. Everything was totally different — the volleyball, the girls, the practice,” said Stavnetchei. “So I think this year I know what to expect and I’ve gotten so much stronger. I think my biggest problem last year was I was tired all the time. Everybody else was still full of energy and I was dying on the court. I don’t feel that way anymore so I can go hard and I can keep going. I definitely feel more comfortable, I definitely feel stronger and I definitely feel like I can help much more this year.”

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