The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
There may well come a point in time when fans of Georgia Tech Volleyball look back at the 2019-20 season and say, “This is where the run of NCAA Tournament appearances began.”
The Jackets (7-4) are excited to take a giant step toward that tonight at 7 p.m. in O’Keefe Gym, when they open ACC play against Syracuse. They’ll follow up Sunday with a noon matinee against Boston College.
The Jackets are looking for a mulligan of sorts after dropping last season’s ACC opening matches to the Orange and Eagles on the road.
There’s no better place to get that redemption than O’Keefe.
“It’s really fun to be able to kick off against two really good teams in our conference and be able to do it in the comfort of being at home,” said head coach Michelle Collier, who is looking to snap a three-match, home-opening losing streak — Tech’s last win in a home-opener came in 2015, a 3-2 thriller over B.C. “It’s always kind of an extra push for us. We love the energy of our environment and I think that brings out the best in our players. Syracuse has won its last three here and B.C. has had a good preseason so we know that they’re not going to be intimidated by our home environment. We have to be ready to put up our A-game here.”
“I think the band brings a lot to our energy at O’Keefe and just having our fans there, having our family there, and being at home and everything that comes with it — being able to sleep in your own bed, eat your food that you’re used to here at O’Keefe — is really good,” said sophomore setter and captain Matti McKissock. “O’Keefe is just a great place. We love playing here in Atlanta so I think it’s a great advantage we have.”
McKissock has given the Jackets a great advantage offensively, filling the role of captain in attitude and action. She comes into the weekend leading the ACC (she’s 13th in the nation) with 11.26 assists per set (439 in 39 sets) for a Jackets’ attack that stands second in the conference in dimes (13.33 per set).
“She’s definitely delivering,” said Collier. “I think it’s a reflection on a team effort offensively. It’s a great team effort and I think she’s definitely maximizing the situations. As a team, we have been more balanced, have more attackers but also our serve-receive has been a lot more consistent than it has been in the past. She’s taking full advantage of that and she’s making really great choices.”
McKissock has some nice options from which to choose, including classmates Mariana Brambilla and Mikaila Dowd, freshman Julia Bergmann, and senior Kodie Comby, and her pushing the right buttons in choosing where to push the ball has the Jackets fourth in the ACC in hitting percentage (.258), and second in kills (14.23/set).
“I think the experience I got last year was something that a lot of freshmen don’t get naturally and it’s carrying over this year,” she said. “I have a lot of really, really good hitters so it makes the game a lot easier, it takes a lot of the pressure off because I know that no matter who I set the ball to I have confidence in them that they’ll put it away. Being able to play as much as I did is really paying off this year.”
But McKissock, who was one of 13 Jackets to earn ACC Honor Roll honors last season, is smart enough to know not to get caught up in stats and has especially ignored the personal accolades, choosing to focus more on what the team can do than what she’s done.
“I, honestly, just have been trying to keep my head down and work really hard in practice,” said the Orlando, Fla., native, who averaged 7.49 assists/set last season as a freshman, playing in all 33 matches, starting 29 of them. “My dad or someone sent me that stat and I was so shocked because I really haven’t been doing anything different. I’ve just been trying to play my game, focus on how I can make my teammates better and what I can do to make the offense run more smoothly. If I just keep doing what I know how to do, everything will fall into place.”
McKissock’s passing and the improvement by the entire team in that facet, has been a big reason for the Jackets’ ranking among the ACC’s top offensive teams.
“There was a big team improvement with our passing and also how well-balanced we are offensively. A lot of people think that makes her job easier but it actually makes her job harder because now she has more people to think about, more decisions to make. Having to evaluate all that in a very small time frame is something that is hard to do. She is doing that at a very high level. I think that our offense hasn’t been this efficient in a very long time. It’s nice to see that and to see her really starting to develop into a great player. It’s been fun watching her grow.”
As important, her hitters are growing with her.
“Every match she’s learning more and more about our hitters. Everybody’s very different. Even our middles,” said Collier. Mariana is now playing a little more on the right side than she was last year. Mikaila and Julia on the outside, there are two very different tempos and hitters. So Matti’s really doing a good job trying to understand and be the best that she can to each one of her hitters and understand their uniquenesses, how they like certain sets and when to put them in a better situation to score. It’s the normal growth that a setter should have. She’s getting better and better really fast.”
Her relatability isn’t limited to her hitters. It’s team-wide and was a factor in her being chosen captain.
“I’m really thankful that my teammates chose me to lead them this season,” McKissck said. “I think it puts a lot of responsibility on me to be better every day, hold myself accountable, hold my teammates accountable. I expect the best from myself and I expect the best from them, too. It really hasn’t changed my game that much. I’ve tried to keep doing what I know how to do, work hard and it’s been working out pretty well for us so far.”
Collier points to McKissock’s character in stepping up as a team leader as something mutually beneficial to her and the team.
“It’s easier when no one is looking at you for anything. It’s harder when everybody has their eyes on you, when they’re observing everything that you do and how you react to situations. It forces you to be better,” she said. “A lot of times, humanly, you want to be like, ‘Oh, I just want a break,’ or ‘I really just don’t want to do this, but I have to set the example.’ I think that has really helped Matti out of situations where maybe she was struggling with something or didn’t feel as confident and had to be that leader and lead by example. It helps if you take it as a positive and I think she has. It definitely has made her a better player and a better leader for our program.”
The change in offensive system, to a 5-1 from a 6-2 has also expedited McKissock’s and the team’s offensive productivity.
“I’ve been able to get more reps with the hitters and play with them all the way around,” said McKissock. “It’s just been good to be able to be on the court with them the whole time. It just creates a lot of team chemistry and helps us play better together.”
A quick start to conference play is paramount, especially against the Orange, who last season got to where the Jackets want to get, the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s really important,” said McKissock. “It’s our second year playing together and so it’s going to be a lot different from last year. We didn’t know what to expect. We know how good everyone is and we are able to train and prepare mentally better for every team that we’re going to face. Even from this year to last year we’ve gotten a lot better as a team so I can’t even imagine our fourth year if we keep working hard and keep sticking together, doing what we know how to do, playing Georgia Tech volleyball. I think the potential is unlimited.”
“I think that volleyball in our gym has been at the highest level that it has ever been,” she said, smiling. “We’re going through some growing pains but we’re getting better every day. They have at least two more years together and that’s fun to think about.”