Aug 29, 2013
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By Jon Cooper
Two and a half games.
That was the difference between Georgia Tech (19-12, 10-10) getting into the NCAA Volleyball Tournament — as NC State (22-10, 12-8) did and Clemson (21-10, 12-8) nearly did — and not getting in, something the Yellow Jackets haven’t done since 2009.
That difference eats at Kaleigh Colson and the senior setter from Austin, Texas, is determined to do something about it in 2013.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” said Colson, who graduates in May with a degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing. “We have never been, so this is our last chance. We’re all on the same page as to that’s one of our goals.”
Getting and keeping the team on the same page on the court is the setter’s job, and few setters in the ACC, if any, do it better than Colson.
The numbers say so. Last season, her 10.53 assists per set (1,221 total assists) ranked second in the ACC — trailing only Florida State’s Nrithya Sundararaman (10.72 assists/set) — while her 10.53 a/s (800 assists) in conference play set the pace.
Her coaches and teammates say so, too, and that’s based on more than just sheer numbers.
“She’s a kid that everybody on the team looks up to,” said head coach Tonya Johnson. “They love the fact that she’s confident but they also love the fact that she’s not up and down. She has the same look on her face whether she just lost a point or she just won a point. From that standpoint she provides some stability for this team, for them to stay even-keel and not experience the highs and lows of a momentum volleyball match.”
“Everything she does, whether it’s extra reps or getting in the gym by herself or even in practice, she’s always focused for her teammates,” added sophomore middle blocker Chanell Clark-Bibbs. “She’s willing to make sacrifices, especially on the court. She’s always asking for feedback so she can better the ball for the hitters. She expects a lot from the defense so she can get a good set for the hitters. Everything she does is to better the team.”
She’s also a fiery competitor who expects a lot from herself on every point she’s on the floor, a place she expects to be. That passion comes from experiencing firsthand what missing out on floor time can be like.
After seeing the floor for only two sets as a freshman, something she expected as she observed and learned from legendary setter Mary Ashley Tippins, Colson found her path to starting derailed early in her sophomore season, something she did not expect.
“I had worked my tail off the off-season of my freshman year to start and then I ended up getting hurt in preseason and couldn’t start, and had to fight my way back for my spot,” she recalled. “Last year I was a starter for an entire season. So, I’ve really seen all aspects of it, which makes me appreciate my time on the court. I know it’s not a right and I know it’s not just going to be given to me. I have to work for it every day.”
As she showed last season, what she does is not limited to setting.
Colson, one of four players in school history to record a triple-double (12 kills, 34 assists, 11 digs, on Oct. 16, 2011 at Miami), racked up 43 service aces (0.37 per set), fourth in the ACC, seven of them in the Sept. 8 match against Jacksonville, with 98 kills, fourth on the team, on .345 hitting, second on the team — she would have ranked seventh in the ACC.
“Serving is such a huge part of the game. It’s always awesome when we can serve with aggression and get points that way. It’s the first ball of each point so it’s the easiest way to get points,” she said. “Attacking-wise, it’s always a benefit when your setter can be a threat as well and being left-handed makes it a ton easier for me to attack compared to being right-handed just because of the angle. It’s easier to do. So that’s a benefit also.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit Colson, the lone returning starter from last year’s team, provides is her leadership through her demeanor.
“I never get too high and energized but I don’t really drop off,” she said. “It’s that steady kind of energy and I think that really helps for people to look at me and know they’ll always know where their passes are going and to just calm them down if they need to. That’s kind of my role, to bring people back when things are going wrong, be someone to look to if they’re struggling or can’t really focus, or have too much going on.”
While Colson preaches even-keel and calm that doesn’t mean she is incapable of showing emotion.
“I remember one time in practice I actually raised my voice at somebody on the court and people were kind of like, ‘Whoa. I didn’t know you could do that.'” she said, with a laugh. “It felt a little uncomfortable but it’s just something you have to get used to. It’s one of those things that’s not a personal attack on anybody. It’s more, ‘I care about you and I want you to perform at your best. I’m getting on you because I know you have more to give’.”
“She definitely has a little bit of an angry side,” said Clark-Bibbs. “I’ve seen it before. When we’re in certain workouts or certain parts of the game and we need to push, she has no problem with expressing that and letting her teammates know that there’s a sense of urgency that needs to be addressed at that moment in time. That’s how you know it’s game time, it’s serious.”
Georgia Tech is serious about getting back to the NCAA Tournament, but have big shoes to fill.
Following the program’s best season in three years and second-best in the Tonya Johnson era, which begins year five in 2013, the Jackets have some big shoes to fill, as five seniors have graduated, including legendary outside hitters Monique Mead, a three-time All-American and the school’s all-time kills leader, and Bailey Hunter, who with Mead, made up the team’s hitting leaders the last four years. Middle blocker Annie Czarnecki, the team’s leading blocker in 2012 also graduated as did the team’s 1-2 punch at Libero/defensive specialist, Nicki Meyer and Susan Carlson.
Still, Johnson likes the look of the team’s frontline in seniors Jennifer Percy (110 kills in 63 matches, 1.75 per set) and Ivona Kolak, who missed most of 2012 due to injury, but impressed during the spring after moving to the right side, and junior Courtney Felinski (85 kills in 53 matches, 1.60 per set).
Clark-Bibbs, who was named to the ACC All-Freshman team last season and played for the U.S. Women’s Junior National Team at the U20 World Championships over the summer, and senior Quinn Evans vie for time at middle blocker. That’s an area the Jackets hope to improve as last season Tech finished ninth in the ACC with 2.12 blocks per set.
“We have two disciplined kids who thrive off of that,” said Johnson. “Chanell wants to be a great blocker in this game and that’s really hard to be because it’s the most technical skill of all the skills that we train in volleyball. Quinn is the same way.”
Libero/DS, meanwhile, is wide open.
“I think (junior) Zoey [Morton] improved a ton, (sophomore) Wimberly [Wilson] made great strides and you’ve got (freshman) London Ackermann coming in from Louisville,” said Johnson. “So our gym is going to be pretty competitive but I do think they’ll all contribute.”
Johnson is eager to see where Tech’s five incoming freshmen — Ackermann, twins Annika and Teegan Van Gunst (Annika is a middle blocker, Teegan, an outside hitter) from Fayetteville, Ga., setter Rebecca Martin from Novi, Mich., and 6-2 middle blocker Lauren Pitz from Carmel, Ind. — fit in the battle for court time.
The spirited competition and the overall positive morale during summer and pre-season workouts has created a different feel around the 2013 team. It’s a closeness that Colson feels can lift the Jackets back into postseason.
“We have been so close the past few years,” said Colson. “I think in the past we’ve had a point in the season where we’ve had a little lull. School picks up, you have your midterms coming in and it’s just a really stressful time. We’ve kind of let some [matches] slip away from us during that part of the season. I think it’s going to be huge for us this year, to power through that as a team and find a way to win, even when it gets tough.”
There will be tough sledding in the conference.
Defending champion Florida State (27-3, 18-2) will once again be loaded, led by 6-3 senior middle blocker Ashley Neff, the 2012 ACC Player of the Year and the conference’s leading returning hitter (248 kills in 2012, including a career-high-tying 16 vs. Georgia Tech, and a .380 attack percentage).
Expect Miami (25-5, 17-3) to be right on FSU’s heels, led by senior outside hitter and defending ACC Player of the Year candidate Alex Johnson (nine double-doubles, 86 assists and a .263 hitting percentage).
Other challengers in the conference should be North Carolina, which may boast the best front line in the conference, with 6-2 redshirt junior outside hitter Chaniel Nelson (278 kills, 123 blocks), 6-2 sophomore middle blocker Paige Neuenfeldt (277 kills, 135 blocks) and up-and-coming 6-0 sophomore outside hitter Lauren Adkins (172 kills in just 13 starts). Clemson, featuring super-athletic 6-0 senior outside hitter Mo Simmons (345 kills, 334 digs, 88 blocks) also could be heard from, as could ACC newcomer Notre Dame, behind junior Toni Alugbue (a team-leading 390 kills last season).
Regardless of how high the mountain might appear, Colson and Co. are ready to give it a go. She and fellow seniors Percy, Evans and Kolak know how they want to go out.
“We’re going to be a really balanced, fast offense, which is going to be great,” said Colson. “We’re a close group of four. We’ve been through everything together, from the first year to this last year and we’re going to go down swinging.”