Nov. 14, 2001
By Jack Williams – It seems they play musical chairs every year in the unpredictable Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Volleyball Tournament. The only way to pick a winner is just check out the pairings and count “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo.”
Georgia Tech coach Shelton Collier is one of those doing the counting – and incidentally, the plotting – for the 22nd annual tournament that comes up Friday through Sunday on the Florida State campus in Tallahassee.
“In the 1990s, there was a different champion six straight years,” Collier says. “That’s how evenly matched it is. This season, I believe there are four teams that could win – Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina and Florida State.”
Notice he listed Georgia Tech first. There’s a good reason for it.
“We have won 10 of our last 12 matches,” the coach said. “This momentum certainly allows us to have a lot of optimism as we head into the tournament.”
Tech (18-6, 12-4) is seeded third and squares off against No. 6 seed Maryland (11-13,7-9) Friday night at 7:30. If the Jackets win, they will face either second-seeded North Carolina or seventh-seeded Clemson in the second round Saturday.
Duke surprised everyone by winning the regular season title. Tech, led by two brilliant senior performers, middle blocker Kyleen Bell of Rocklin, Calif., and outside hitter Maja Pachale of Schwerin, Germany, tied North Carolina for second. Pachale has a team-leading 399 kills and 43 blocks while Bell has 292 kills and 77 blocks.
Collier says there are a number of major reasons for Tech’s fast finish in the regular season. He points to a couple of freshmen, Lynnette Moster of Liberty, Ind., and 6-4 Lauren Sauer (her teammates call her Sauer Tower) of Huntsville, Ala. He also credits the sparkling performance of two established sophomores, middle blocker Alexandra Preiss of Berlin, Germany and setter Kele Eveland of Grand Rapids, Mich.
“After evaluating our team in early November, I felt we needed to make a couple of major changes in our lineup to have a chance to win the ACC Tournament,” Collier said. “Basically, I would say that our team has evolved from the ‘Ky and Maya Show,’ to a strong well-balanced team with a lot of players in key roles. This is critical in terms of winning a three-day tournament. One player can carry a team for a match, but usually not three nights in a row. It takes many players contributing.”
Two of the major moves Collier made involved the first-year players, Moster and Sauer. “Moster moved from the left side to the right, switching places with Sauer,” the coach said. “It was a key move. It allows us to keep a very talented player like Moster in the game throughout. Both those freshmen played the best volleyball of their collegiate careers this past weekend.”
In Collier’s opinion, the improved play of Eveland is the single most important reason for the Tech spurt.
“Last year, Kele definitely was the best setter in the ACC,” he said. “Earlier this season, however, several setters in the league were out-playing her. I think recently she has re-established herself. She looks forward to the challenge of leading our team this weekend.”
Eveland seconds the motion–and how!
“I had a bout with pneumonia over last summer,” she said, “and got off to a very slow start this season. It took a while to regain my full strength. I also was thinking too much rather than instinctively playing the game. Now it is so much fun. I’m just playing the game the way I have always known how to play it.”
Collier also hails the performance of Preiss, who has been playing like gangbusters in recent weeks and has 237 kills for the season. “Alex is one of the top hitters in the ACC now and that has been a major development in our offense,” the coach said.
What about Maryland–the first round foe whom the Jackets beat twice during the regular season?
Coach Collier has mixed emotions about that pairing. Eveland is gung-ho for the challenge.
“I do have mixed feelings about Maryland,” Collier said. “We just beat them last weekend in our best match on their home court, which is a positive. Hopefully, we will play very motivated and not look past them. I believe that will be the case.”
So does Eveland. “Maryland can be hot and surprise you if you are not ready to play,” she said. “But if we stay focused and just concentrate on that one match, we definitely should win.”
Eveland says she would like a third shot at Duke, which beat the Jackets twice during the regular season. Tech would have to advance to the finals to get that chance because the Blue Devils are in an opposite bracket.
“Duke is a good team,” Eveland said. “But the Duke wins over us left me with a bad feeling. We had a real chance to win. I hope we have another chance to prove ourselves against them.”
Collier says he anticipates Duke will be in the championship game, but warns, “Florida State, on its home court, could knock Duke out in the semifinals.”
Win or lose in Tallahassee, the Tech coaches and players feel certain the team will be invited to the NCAA Tournament, starting at 16 sites November 30. “There is no question we have the credentials to be in the NCAA field,” Collier said. “We look forward to that competition.”
But first things first. Collier and his Jackets now have their sights set on the ACC showdown where they’re lined up for musical chairs–all over again.