The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
Every season is a journey with unexpected twists and turns to deal with, ideally on the way to a glorious destination. It’s a journey that the players hopefully enjoy, even if they don’t necessarily know when and where it will end.
Head coach Michelle Collier felt the best way to prepare her Georgia Tech volleyball team for the 2019 season, was to take the squad and her entire staff on such a journey. So following the team’s weight training session at Zelnak Center on Monday, Collier, her staff and the team got on a bus and hit the road. The final destination proved to be a beach house in Destin, Fla. They returned Wednesday night.
While the big picture destination the team has in mind is to PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, on Dec. 19-21 for the 2019 NCAA D-I Women’s Volleyball Championships, a day at the beach and some fun in the sun fit the bill for now.
It was a perfect fit.
“It’s beautiful,” said Collier, who brings an 86-73 record into her sixth season on the Flats. “The goal behind it was for us to be able to have time with each other, more of it outside the court. We get to spend time as a team, a lot training. It’s nice to be able to hang out a little bit in a different arena than what we’re used to.”
There was plenty of suspense for the players.
“It was a surprise and so the whole time we were on the bus we were guessing where we’re going,” said senior middle blocker Kodie Comby, one of five seniors and the leading returning percentage hitter (.326) and blocker (14 solo blocks, 106 block assists, 120 total blocks, 1.02 blocks per set). “It was a very pleasant surprise. The beach house has been amazing. It’s another good chance to bond with the new girls. It’s a good time to kind of relax. It’s been fun.”
“We kept looking at our phone maps and saw we were getting close to the water then we pulled up to this giant house on the beach. It just has been so fun,” said sophomore setter Matti McKissock, last year’s assist leader (929, 7.49 per set), who was second in service aces (24) and sets played (124). “Last night the coaches made us dinner and we were playing card games, it was super-fun. It’s been amazing. This is such a good idea from the coaching staff because a lot of times we’re in practice or we’re in our rooms in our dorms. So to just be able to spend time with each other, more to bond as friends and as people rather than just teammates, in a more family-like atmosphere is really important and translates to the court really well. I’m excited to be on the beach. That’s my favorite place to be.”
Freshman middle blocker Erin Moss, one of four freshmen still metaphorically getting her feet wet as far as D-I volleyball and college life, welcomed literally getting her feet wet in the ocean then hitting the beach for some beach volleyball.
“It was just so exciting because it’s preseason. You think you’re going to all day grinding in the gym — which we still are,” she said. “To get caught off-guard with such an awesome trip, it was much-needed for us to be in a different environment, for us to be able to bond together. It’s my first year here. To know that we can do things like this and go on these fun trips and spend all this time together is really exciting. I hope we have more surprise trips.”
The trip was designed to bring the team together before they are separated for Saturday’s annual Gold/White Scrimmage at O’Keefe Gym. The match begins at 5:30 p.m.
“The Gold and White is a learning practice but it’s a time that they’re excited about. We want them to go out there and play hard and have fun,” said Collier, who will supervise as assistant coaches Claudio Pinheiro and Arielle Wilson handle head coaching duties. “We’re working hard; we’re doing a lot of things that are very high level. The Gold and White Scrimmage always helps to put that uniform on, get the butterflies going, and get a little more of a match-life situation, have them compete. It’s a final rehearsal and a good time for us and our fans to be able to kind of see what we’ve been working on and what we need to get better at.
“It’s always a good time for the fans,” she added. “I think they’re always very curious about what we’re going to look like and I know that there are a lot of expectations on this group and the talent that we have. So we’re working hard to live up to those.”
The players can’t wait to hit the court and experience a real home match — they’ll get a taste of road-game intensity next Saturday, when they visit Auburn — regardless of whether it’s their first Gold/White or last.
“I’m very excited,” said Comby, who’ll be playing in her fourth scrimmage. “That’s where we see all of our practices translated into a game-like situation. We see the Gold and White Scrimmage not as our final product, but see where we can go from there, and see how much we’ve improved but also how much more we can do and how much better we can get.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Gold/White Scrimmage or anything like it, so I’m definitely excited to see how it’s going to go,” said Moss, who starred at Valwood High School in Valdosta, Ga. “I know it’s going to be really competitive because our practices can get really competitive. So I’m super excited to be able to experience that.”
McKissock feels older and wiser as she heads into her second Gold/White.
“Just knowing what to expect is going to better prepare me with the nerves and how to handle those situations,” she said. “It’ll be fun. There are fans there and we all want to play this upcoming season.
“It gets really competitive. We all are super-competitive with each other and we all want to win,” she added. “Last year it got super-intense because we all wanted to play and we all wanted to prove to the coaches and to the fans how hard we’d been working and how good we all are. I think it just caught me by surprise by how into it we all were.”
The Jackets return a superb group of sophomores in addition to McKissock, including 2018 all-ACC second team, all-ACC freshman team, all-ACC academic team and 2019 preseason all-ACC outside hitter Mikaila Dowd (422 kills, a team-high 3.67 kills per set, in 30 matches, 29 starts) and fellow outside hitter Mariana Brambilla, also all-ACC freshman team and all-ACC academic team and the team’s leading hitter last season (438 kills, 3.5 per set — she also led the team with 29 service aces while starting all 33 matches, playing a team-high 125 sets).
Collier is still making out the lineups for Saturday.
“I don’t know how I want to do it yet,” she said, with a laugh. “Usually I mix up the team but then, one or two sets, we put some more of our starting lineup of what we envision could happen. We always tell our team ‘We know who the six are that are going to start, we never know the six who are going to end the match.’
“I like to have those options, to have the trust in my players to be able to move things around and do what’s necessary for us to win,” she added. “So I think it’s going to be a little bit of both. We have a lot of depth and talent on our roster that things are going to move around a little bit. I think that is always one of the things that I strive for, is to get a roster to have options to put on the floor and because that’s how the game goes. There are good days and bad days.”