Aug. 24, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Monique Mead will carry a lot of weight on her shoulders when she leads Georgia Tech onto the floor of O’Keefe Gymnasium for its double-header today as this weekend’s Georgia Tech Courtyard Classic wraps up. (The Yellow Jackets play at 10 a.m. against Charleston Southern and at 7 p.m. against SMU, after having taken on Cal State-Fullerton Friday night.).
It’s the same weight she’ll carry every night she leads the volleyball team onto the floor.
The senior outside hitter not only represents the Yellow Jackets’ present as the team’s top offensive threat, but also the future of the sport to an entire generation of African-American and female athletes.
It’s a responsibility Mead’s always recognized and taken very seriously, and which was made even more obvious by COBRA Magazine’s naming her one of its eight Player of the Year candidates.
“Being able to be a role model and being able to kind of help represent African-American and female athletes is a really big opportunity,” she said. “I definitely want to keep working and make sure I keep working hard for them so that they see how much effort I put in. Maybe they can put in that same effort and know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and if your heart’s in it and you have that passion for the game. Bringing African-Americans into volleyball is a really big thing, in making sure that it’s a nice, diverse sport.”
“We’re starting to see the numbers increase,” said Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Tonya Johnson. “Most African-Americans grow up loving basketball and track and field, so it’s really nice to see more African-American females playing the great sport of volleyball. I think she’s been a great role model to a lot of kids here in the Atlanta area. In our camps this summer we probably had the most African-Americans since we’ve been here. So that was a real nice improvement. Even from a fans’ standpoint, African-American families come out and support us. That’s a great thing for our sport.”
Mead, one of three African-Americans on this year’s squad (redshirt freshman middle blocker Ashtaan Horton and freshman middle blocker Chanell Clark-Bibbs also are on the roster), has been great for the sport on the Flats.
“I didn’t recruit her but I certainly claim her,” said Johnson whose first year as Tech’s coach, 2009, coincided with Mead’s freshman year. “It’s nice to walk into a situation where you have a player who is athletic and is as dynamic as she is. In my opinion, she’s one of the best players in the country and she gets another year to go out and prove that.
“Her game has improved tremendously just in understanding the game, raising her volleyball IQ, being a leader,” she added. “I don’t think being a leader is an easy thing to do in this day and age, understanding what that takes, but also taking responsibility and some accountability for being a student-athlete and making sure she’s getting it done both on the court and in the classroom.”
The Newnan, Ga., native has always gotten it done on the court. She begins her senior season eighth in school history in career kills (1,459) and second in kills per set (4.13). Mead could hold both records by season’s end as she is only 400 kills behind current record-holder Lynnette Moster (2001-04) and is only eight one-thousandths of a point for kills-per-set percentage behind Maya Pachale (1998-2001). Mead has had more than 500 kills (including 588 last season, the second-most in a season in school history) and has killed at 4.29 and 5.03 per set each of the last two seasons.
The record Mead will be focused on, however, is the team’s. Picked sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the preseason, the Jackets would like to improve on the 15-16 mark from 2011 and its 8-12 ACC ledger.
For Mead, who finished second in the nation and tops in the ACC in points per set (5.70), team improvement starts with her own.
“I never think that I’m too good to get better,” she said. “I definitely want to work on being more consistent hitting, on reducing my errors. That means maybe having a secondary shot and working on different ways to keep the ball in play and avoid that block and really hit it in the court. Besides that, a lot of defensive, whether it comes from blocking or the second-line defense in the back court, making sure that I’m where I’m supposed to be and low and ready, always waiting for the ball.”
Once she helps take care of business on the courts of the ACC, Mead, who graduates in December, has plans to make volleyball her profession.
“It is definitely the next step after this year,” she said. “I want to have a good season, not only for my team and for Georgia Tech, but I also want to further my game so I can continue pursuing my dream of volleyball somewhere where they have professional volleyball. I would love the opportunity to continue playing and continue to travel and learn cultures and different languages.”
The team’s 11-day trip to Europe over the summer was a major building block to that end.
“I definitely had a blast overseas, outside of volleyball,” she said. “I spent a lot of time trying to learn the language and trying to learn everything about the culture. A lot of things are very different over there. I definitely enjoyed that experience.”
While she’s eager to experience playing in a foreign country, Mead, who has had try-outs with the U.S. National Team over the last two summers, still harbors hopes of representing the U.S.
But she knows that any date with destiny or, in this case, Destinee, as in star hitter Destinee Hooker, also is a few years away.
“If that opportunity arises and I get selected or I can go try out and be a part of that, I definitely would jump on that really quickly. I think that there’s a lot of different aspects of my game that can get better. That just comes from time and maturity and getting to know the game and experience.”
“I think she’s still got some development to do,” said Johnson. “Our national had a lot of older players because you don’t really understand and get the game until your mid-20s, late-20s. That’s when you know what your best shots are, what you’re capable of doing. I think it’s going to take her a couple more years to mature and understand the game to play at a high level.
“There are very few Destinee Hookers out there in the world,” Johnson added. “Destinee is a world-class athlete. She’s a world-class volleyball player, she’s a world-class high-jumper and I think there are very few kids that are capable of that. It remains to be seen in regards to how bad Mo wants that for herself.”
There will be plenty of eyes on Monique Mead and Georgia Tech as we find out.