Oct. 2, 2003
On a recent cross-campus Stinger bus ride, Kele Eveland could hardly believe what she was hearing.
“Hey, our volleyball team is fifth in the nation,” one student said to another. “We should go check them out.”
“Wow, people are actually talking about us,” thought the senior setter, who has played a key role in the Lady Jackets’ record-setting 13-0 start.
Historically, the fall sports scene on the Flats has been dominated by football, and everything else, no matter how successful, has been an afterthought. However, the story unfolding at O’Keefe this season is drawing plenty of attention.
So much so that over 200 fans were turned away from a match against Wisconsin several weeks ago. A standing room only crowd of over 1,400 jammed tiny O’Keefe Gymnasium to witness a thrilling victory over the ranked Badgers.
“It’s awesome and really, really fun,” said second-year head coach Bond Shymansky. “We’d love for everybody to come see us play. We feel as if we’ve arrived at a new level now. We say, ‘We’re the toughest ticket in town. If people want to see us, they’ve got to show up early.’ I think fans have really responded to our style of play.”
That style consists of a fast-paced offense that keeps opponents off-balance, and Eveland is in the middle of it all, setting the table for her teammates.
“She’s the quarterback,” stated Shymansky. “If you don’t have a quarterback that can throw the ball, you don’t score touchdowns. If you don’t have a setter that can deliver great sets and make great split-second decisions, then you can’t run this offense. We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things we do without a setter like Kele.”
The accomplishments this young season already have exceeded all expectations. After an ACC title and a school-record 33 victories last year, the team entered this season ranked 12th in the nation. It was the program’s highest ranking ever, but the team had their sights set much higher with nine starters returning.
“The experience and maturity level are the biggest differences this year,” explained Eveland, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It’s the same players on the court, but it’s a more mature team. There so much more confidence on the floor. If we’re down, we know we’re going to come back. If we’re winning, we have that killer instinct that we’re going to crush this team.”
The year began with two tournament titles and a perfect 5-0 record, but the season turned magical on a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska in mid-September. On three consecutive days, the Lady Jackets downed top 20 opponents.
The crowning moment came when they defeated the fifth-ranked Cornhuskers in a five-set thriller on their home court, where Nebraska hadn’t lost a regular season match since 1999.
“It was a battle from start to finish for every point,” said Eveland, whose mother and sister attended the match. “As the setter, I was thinking through every set of the entire game. Talk about mental exhaustion.
“I was going against girls 6-3 and above all across the line. It wasn’t like just one blocker like we’re used to seeing. These girls were good and powerful. We were passing so well and so fast, Nebraska just couldn’t keep up with us.
“It’s hard to hush 4200 people, but we did that,” she continued. “We were so excited. A few days ago, I was watching the tape, and I was in a state of shock. That was big time.”
The compliments and accolades have been piling up ever since.
“I’ve never seen a college setter do what she’s doing,” Cornhuskers coach John Cook told the Daily Nebraskan. That’s high praise, considering Cook has coached several superstar setters on the collegiate and national levels.
Eveland earned both ACC and national player of the week honors after her stellar performance in the tournament, which included 65 assists and 11 digs against Nebraska. Her 14.32 assists per game so far this season rank second in the nation, and she is on pace to break Andrea Nachtrieb’s Tech career mark (6,102) in the category.
The historic victory served as a defining moment in the program’s history. The Lady Jackets vaulted to fifth place, the highest ever for an ACC program, in the USA Today/AVCA coaches poll.
“That win doesn’t get us points against other teams directly, but indirectly it certainly gives us a lot of confidence,” noted Shymansky. “It gives us the knowledge that we can, not that we could or might, but that we can.”
“It’s not the ranking, the stats or the wins, it’s the respect we’ve earned,” added Eveland. “The name Georgia Tech is not going to give us respect right off the bat, because we don’t have the strong history like Nebraska, Stanford or USC. Going and beating Nebraska in their gym in a five-game battle finally felt like we earned our respect.”
While the team is finally getting its due, Eveland has been a top performer her entire career. In high school, she helped her team win the state volleyball championship her senior year. And in addition to also starring on the basketball team, Eveland was the class valedictorian and homecoming queen.
She had been to Atlanta only once, a relative’s wedding as a seven-year-old, prior to her recruiting trip, but Georgia Tech seemed like the right fit.
“I wanted a school that offered everything I wanted, like great academics, strong sports tradition, a great environment and warm weather,” she said. “When I saw the dorms here, I said, ‘I can do this.'”
The allure of immediate playing time was also a factor, and Eveland stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman, earning the program’s first-ever ACC Rookie of Year award. She has been a second team all-ACC selection the past two seasons, but Eveland and the teammates are reaching new heights this fall.
“If somebody had told me as a freshman that we’d be fifth in the nation and undefeated my senior year, I’d have said, ‘Whatever, you’re lying!’ It’s just so awesome to be part of a great team and a great program that’s up and coming,” said Eveland, who is on track to graduate in August.