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Dec. 14, 2012

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

– It’s not uncommon for Monique Mead, Bailey Hunter and Annie Czarnecki to be seen lined up next to each other.

Georgia Tech volleyball fans got to see it all season long, as outside hitters Mead and Hunter and middle blocker Czarnecki frequently inhabited the Yellow Jackets’ front line and gave opponents fits while leading the team to a 19-12 record the second-best season in the Tonya Johnson Era.

When the trio lines up Saturday afternoon, it will be their first time in McCamish Pavilion and their last as Georgia Tech students. It also may be the most rewarding time, as they’ll receive their diplomas as graduates of Georgia Tech during the school’s commencement ceremony.

“I am feeling mixed emotions,” said Hunter. “I walked out of my last exam and I kind of teared up. People were like, ‘Why are you crying?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve given five years of my life to this school, and it’s been awesome, and I’m ready to move forward and tackle new things, but I’m also sad to leave behind such a good part of my life.'”

“I’m excited. It’s certainly a big accomplishment, and I’m happy that I get to share it with Mo and Bailey,” said Czarnecki. “I have had a good time in my time at Tech but I’m ready to close that chapter and see what’s next.”

What’s next for all three is up in the air, like most college graduates. But all three leave having made their mark in O’Keefe Gym.

Mead leaves as the school’s all-time leader in kills (1,918), a four-time All-ACC performer, including ACC Freshman of the Year in 2009, and as a four-time American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-American, earning a career-best third-team berth after being honorable mention each of her first three years. She will likely spend her third straight summer participating with the U.S. National Team. From there, there is the possibility of playing pro — although that probably means playing abroad — or looking for something in the field of Business Administration.

Hunter, the last hitter to lead the team in kills prior to Mead’s arrival, was second on the team in kills after coming back for a fifth year. She said she already misses playing and preparing to play the game she loves and plans to pursue a pro career come January, coincidentally around the time her current job with Collegiate Licensing Company ends. Hunter said the camaraderie, and especially the bond formed with Mead and Czarnecki is something she’ll never forget.

“It was awesome to kind of walk through this process with them because we all had the same goals, we had the same mindset and mentality,” she said. “I would definitely say that I was closest on the team with the two of them just because, of all the players, they wanted it the most, especially within my last couple of years. I definitely could not have done it without the two of them. They were a big part of why I came back for a fifth year.”

Czarnecki had a breakout year in 2012. She played in 11 games her first three years (with two kills, zero blocks) but never stopped working toward her goal of getting on the court. Her tireless work paid off her senior year, as she was the team’s runaway leader in blocks (123, seventh in the ACC) and blocks per set (1.08, eighth in the conference). Czarnecki also ranked third on the team in kills, with 197, behind only Mead and Hunter — the trio of Mead (459), Hunter (383) and Czarnecki accounted for 67 percent of the team’s kills in 2012 and 57.9 percent of its blocks.

Leaving a good final impression meant a lot to Czarnecki.

“It was great, especially for it being my senior year. It was kind of my last chance,” she said. “It was fun to be able to come out and be able to get a chance to play. I hadn’t had that before, and to be able to make a difference as well. I had a great time being out on the court and spending my last year with all of my teammates playing. It definitely made some really good memories.”

Receiving her degree in Business Administration, with a concentration in Marketing, will be another pleasant one. She plans to stick around Atlanta, at least through the spring while on the job hunt, and she has kept open the possibility of staying in sports or working in physical therapy or as physician’s assistant. Those doors are open thanks to the organic chemistry class she took and calls the hardest one in her four years.

All three expect to be well-represented at graduation. Mead grew up in Newnan, so her parents and older sister, Ashley, likely will be in attendance. The families of Hunter and Czarnecki have a little further to travel — Hunter’s family lives in Hendersonville, N.C., Czarnecki’s in Bettendorf, Iowa, — but both expect to be in attendance.

“My whole family is coming, my two brothers (both in college), and my mom and my dad,” said Hunter. “[Her mom and dad] had perfect attendance when it comes to showing up for my volleyball matches, so, of course, they’re going to be at my graduation. We’re going to have a pretty good turnout, my grandparents, my boyfriend, which is exciting, and a whole bunch of friends and community members that are able to come. It’s a great time for us.”

“We got seven tickets for graduation, so I know my parents will be here and then my sister and brother and grandparents,” said Czarnecki. “So I’m real excited that they’re all going to be able to make it.”

The trio will share one more ovation and enjoy hearing their names called then the walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. Fittingly, they’ll get to enjoy that moment, the culmination of their college careers, together.

“You recognize that Georgia Tech is a tough school but at the same time you know that you’re going to get a great education and a great degree that is going to serve you well for the rest of your life,” said Czarnecki. “Sometimes it may have been tougher than it would have been at other places, but I never really regretted it, because I knew that it would always pay off in the end.”

“You have to take your hat off to every athlete that goes through Georgia Tech,” said Hunter. “It’s really special. You don’t realize until you sit down and talk about your experience. It was definitely hard at times and everyone wants to throw in the towel here and there. But to finish and to come out with a degree is pretty awesome.”


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