The Good word | by Jon Cooper
When you’re picked 10th in your conference — even one as balanced as the Atlantic Coast Conference — respect is hard to come by.
But once it starts coming, it can come in waves.
Georgia Tech volleyball is at high tide right now.
Off to an 11-2 start, Yellow Jackets’ junior middle blocker Kodie Comby earned ACC Player of the Week and freshman outside hitter Mariana Brambilla received ACC Freshman of the Week following Tech’s impressive weekend wins over SEC opponents RV Georgia (3-2) and Arkansas (3-1) in the Georgia Tech Classic.
“It was a fun weekend,” said head coach Michelle Collier, whose team is off to its best start in her five seasons on The Flats. “It was an important win for us, not only because it’s Georgia but also for the level of volleyball that they play and for us to be able to perform and win at that level. I think it was a good confidence booster for this group, then to turn around and beat Arkansas, which is another team that had been playing well, they’re going to do well in their conference, hopefully it’s a growing point for our team.”
Collier was especially proud of her honored players. Brambilla won her second Freshman of the Week award (she also won Sept. 3), compiling 27 kills and 26 digs in the two matches, averaging 3.0 kills per set, raising her team-high total to 180, and extending her streak of consecutive double-double matches to five (she has 10 overall). Comby hit a team-best .484, with 19 kills and 14 total blocks — including a career-best nine against Georgia — and 1.56 blocks per set.
“We like it. (Mariana’s) doing some great things out there,” said Collier. “Our team is doing great things out there. Those individual awards are always a reflection on the team and the things that they’re doing out there and how hard they’re battling and fighting for each other. So it’s always fun to have players recognized and I am sure that my players understand that it’s a team effort. It doesn’t happen without their teammates. So even though it’s an individual award it’s always a fun recognition for the group and just reassuring that they’re doing the right things.”
Brambilla did plenty right in both matches, going for 11 kills and 12 digs in the win over Georgia, then going for a 16-kills, 14-digs performance over Arkansas. While she’s no stranger to rivalries in her native Brazil (including vs. Argentina in Sudamericano), Mariana admitted that she enjoyed her first taste of the Georgia Tech-Georgia rivalry.
“I was really excited to play this match because I know the importance and how big a rivalry that we have,” she said. “The team was together. It was on the same page. Before the match I was really excited. In the gym there were so many people and everybody was cheering. But in the moment that I got on the court I just focused. I think, ‘Okay, this is a normal game. This is another game.’ I try to forget everything that is around. I try to think that there are walls and it’s only my team, the court, the coaches, and the opponent.”
Winning freshman of the week a second time was exciting and the next step on the amazing journey she’s on.
“Every time it’s a surprise for me but we just have to keep doing everything,” she said. “Every day is a new challenge because every day here is different. Every day is different so every day I’m learning something new. I’m discovering something and everybody is teaching me something that I didn’t know so it really is a new challenge here.”
Collier was as proud of Comby for winning her first conference player of the week and responding to the challenge of being a leader.
“Kodie is somebody that we’re going to rely on a lot. She’s one of our most experienced players but she’s also one of the better middles in our conference,” she said. “I think that her game is continuing to grow. I think that this was a really important weekend for her, for her confidence and for the things that she knows how to do, it was good to put two big matches back to back, not only offensively but she did get tons of blocks this weekend, too. So defensively she really helped us, put us in a position to win those matches. So I’m really proud of what she’s doing. She has been a great leader for the group and we’re hoping for some big things from her here during the conference.”
Comby helped lead Brambilla and the other youngsters while also helping keep them emotionally under control prior to the match against Georgia by using her experience.
“I think a lot of them were nervous. I played a little bit my freshman year so I think I can relate to them so I made sure to talk to a few of them, make sure their nerves were calm,” she said. “So just making sure everybody feels comfortable with what they’re doing and just confident in themselves helps.
“I had some awesome people to look up to when I was growing up,” she added. “There was a great senior class, London Ackermann and Lauren Pitz were great leaders, then we had Gabi Stavnetchei the year after. Just kind of learning through me watching them, what kind of styles that I most relate to and what I don’t like kind of helped me establish my own leadership role.”
She led by example on the court, hitting with confidence — including a team-best .526 against Arkansas — and believes her confidence and the team’s can snowball.
“It really helped me confidence-wise,” she said. “I think we struggled — middles in general, a little bit — at the beginning of the season, connecting with the setters because it takes time. Having two different setters that have completely different setting styles was hard to kind of adjust. But I think once we finally both realized that we’ve both got this and we connected, it helped so much.”
Making that connection now couldn’t come at a better time as the Yellow Jackets open the ACC portion of their schedule, opening at Syracuse (4-4, this match will be their ACC- and season-home debut) Friday evening, then visiting Boston College (10-2, 4-0 at Power Gym — the Eagles host Clemson Friday) Sunday afternoon. The Yellow Jackets were 3-9 on the road last season and have one winning season away from home since 2011 (9-5 in 2016).
“That has always been the challenge for us,” said Collier. “There is nothing like O’Keefe anywhere that we go play so what is our biggest strength is also our biggest weakness a lot of times. As a group we have to do a better job of re-creating the mindset and the intensity and energy that we get from playing at O’Keefe, bring that on the road and have that raise our level of performance. It’s growing up. It’s creating an identity as a team.”
Georgia Tech is 4-4 (14-17 in total sets) against the Orange but is 0-4 in upstate New York (2-12 in sets — 0-3, 2-9 as ACC rivals). Of their four losses, three (two in ACC play) were 0-3.
The Jackets have fared better against the Eagles. They’re 22-3 all-time, 69-21 in sets — all but two of those wins (six sets) coming as ACC rivals — and had a streak of 18 straight wins against them snapped in 2016. In Chestnut Hill they’are 7-3 (24-15).
Collier knows that those numbers can be thrown aside and that her Jackets need to be ready to play.
“I don’t believe this season, in our conference, that there will be an easy match,” she said. “Everybody’s better. If you look at everybody’s record and what they’re doing and how they handled their preseason, there’s a lot of good volleyball being played in the ACC. We’re going to have to play big and physical and aggressive, the way we played this weekend in order to compete.”
That message is not lost on the players, who are looking to continue to channel that O’Keefe energy and find that winning formula on the road.
“One of our main struggles is bringing intensity within our own team so going on the road, making sure that every single point we have intensity,” Comby said. “Go after every single ball and play like we played UGA and like our entire home crowd is cheering us on. So just bring our intensity with us on the road and keep it consistently there.”
“Now it’s what is really important for us. This is what we really want, beat those teams, try to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Brambilla. “We will have to be super-focused, be ready for those games. Here we have a routine. We must do the same things we do here. Play with a lot of energy because we are not going to have all those people cheering for us. So we have to be more focused. We have to put our energy on the court.”