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Nov. 5, 2012

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

College athletics is no place for the meek.

The stakes are high and can turn even the nicest of people into the meanest of competitors.

Georgia Tech Volleyball Head Coach Tonya Johnson hopes that is the case with Yellow Jackets setter Kaleigh Colson.

Johnson admitted she is going to do her part to make the junior, if not more testy on the court, at least a little less nice.

“I’m going to help her develop a mean bone in her body for the rest of the season and the spring,” said Johnson, with a laugh.

Being meaner in demeanor is about the only pressing need for the junior, who has been lofting some mean passes all season long and enters Thursday’s match at O’Keefe Gym against third-place North Carolina (21-4, 12-3), 13/100ths of a point out of the assists lead in ACC play (only Miami’s Nrithya Sundararaman’s 10.48 assists per set tops Colson’s 10.35). She is third in the conference in overall assists per match at 10.43, Sundararaman leads at 10.84 and Jordan Fish of Virginia Tech is second with 10.69.

“I didn’t know,” she said modestly when told of the company she’s keeping with the conference leaders. “It’s not something I really keep track of, but I guess it helps playing a 5-1 when a lot of other schools run a 6-2, so they’re splitting time between setters. I get probably twice as many touches as some of those girls. We’ve been to five [sets] a lot, too, recently, which means more points, more opportunities for assists.”

Of course she didn’t know, and of course had a logical reason to remove herself from the spotlight. After all, she is a setter, a player whose primary goal is to put others in position to score.

Her ability to avoid the spotlight is getting more and more difficult with each match.

The junior from Austin, Texas, who, in addition to her proximity to the lead in assists per set, is among the conference leaders in serving (she’s second in aces per set to teammate Monique Mead). Amongst the Jackets, she is third on the team with seven double-doubles — only senior co-captains Bailey Hunter (nine) and Mead (eight) have more.

Colson didn’t get a double-double over the weekend in a pair of tough losses at Virginia and Virginia Tech yet almost came up with double-doubles in both, and against the Hokies, nearly came up with her second triple-double, going for 36 assists, seven kills (nine total attack points) and eight digs.

She would have been the first Yellow Jacket to record two triple-doubles, as she is the last Jacket to get one and only the fourth in Yellow Jackets history to do so, going for 12 kills, 34 assists and 11 digs last Oct. 16 at Miami.

It’s hard to believe that Colson actually started last season coming off the bench. But since taking over the starting job early last season, she has shown no sign of giving the job up.

This season Johnson sees a comfort level in Colson’s game that comes with maturity and experience.

“I think she’s understanding the offense and understanding what she needs to do to help this team win and that’s important for a setter, being the quarterback of the team,” she said. “I would like to see her personality come out a little bit more. We have these talks weekly and I’m starting to see a little bit more every week. I think that she has done a tremendous job this season and I think she still has room to improve. She’s the type of kid that just wants to get better every day.”

She’s put herself into position to challenge for the best in the ACC and become only the fourth Yellow Jacket to lead the conference, joining Andrea Nachtrieb, who did it twice (1995 and ’96), Kele Eveland (2003) and Lindsey Laband (2004) and, most recently, Mary Ashley Tippins (2009), who did it in Colson’s freshman season.

Being around Tippins, who last season served as a graduate assistant was invaluable to her development.

“I loved working with ‘Mash,'” Colson said. “She was here my freshman year as well and I learned a lot from her. She spent a lot of one-on-one time with me just getting extra reps and extra touches, especially in the summer she was here. We would come in and set for a while. She gave me a lot of good advice.”

Kaleigh, whose older sister, Kristen played at Liberty, has put that advice to good use this season.

Against the Cavaliers on Friday night, she dished out 58 assists, her fifth 50-assist match of season and her third in five. The 58 assists were one off her career-high set last Sept. 3, fittingly against Rice, in a return to her home state.

Putting that many passes on the mark — and that doesn’t include the attempts that don’t result in points — isn’t as easy as it sounds or as easy as she’s made it look.

Being the only setter and with the number of long matches Georgia Tech has played, it can be a grind to put up the perfect pass. The hardest part is the mental approach, as after a while it becomes a matter of muscle-memory taking over.

“Once you get in a rhythm you don’t really have to think about technique as much as when you’re in that moment of when it’s high-intensity, high-focus, it’s just go with it,” she said.

Tech’s five five-set matches haven’t helped. That’s a point where mental tenacity comes in and a little bit of a mind game.

“It’s mind over body at that point, especially when you get down to a fifth game, it’s just a sprint to 15,” she said. “It’s so short. You don’t really have time to think about if you’re tired or whatnot. We always look at it as a sprint — three games to five and that’s it.”

Johnson appreciates the patience her setter has shown and ability to play through, but it’s also the point where Colson’s lack of a “mean bone” can be somewhat detrimental.

“There are days when we don’t pass well when she probably feels like she’s running a cross-country meet,” Johnson said. “That’s when you look at her and you have to say, ‘You have to be more demanding of your passers to put you in a better situation so you’re not acting like you’re part of a track team instead of a volleyball team. That’s when I’d like to see her be a little bit more demanding with her personality and more demanding of her passers to put this ball where she needs to be so she can run the offense.”

Thursday would be a good time to start. There are only five matches left and the Yellow Jackets are two games out of fourth place. Three of the matches are against teams that are in front of them — UNC, NC State and Clemson, with two of those at home.


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