March 31, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Tournaments were magical on the Flats in March.
Men’s basketball had a pair of resounding wins at McCamish Pavilion on the way to the National Invitation Tournament Final game, and women’s basketball went 5-0 at McCamish on its way to a berth in the Final of the WNIT.
Georgia Tech volleyball is hoping that magic stuck around and moved across the parking lot to O’Keefe Gym where on Saturday the Jackets will host their spring tournament. Admission is free to the public.
The six-team field also includes the University of Florida, South Alabama, Gardner-Webb, Chattanooga, and UNC-Charlotte. The Yellow Jackets will play Florida at 9:30 a.m., South Alabama at 1 p.m., UNC-Charlotte at 4 and Chattanooga in the finale at 6. All matches, with the exception of GT-Florida, will be two sets to 25, with a 50-minute cap.
It’ll be the first home matches of 2017 for the Yellow Jackets, who are coming off a 24-8 season (15-5 in the ACC), tying for fourth in the ACC with Pittsburgh, and just missing an NCAA Tournament bid. But this is a very different team from last season, as five senior starters graduated, including decorated outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst, middle blocker Annika Van Gunst, setter Rebecca Martin, middle blocker Lauren Pitz and libero London Ackermann.
It’s a lot to replace for head coach Michelle Collier, who will bring a 55-40 record into her fourth season (30-28 in ACC play) and has seen her program win totals increase by at least five wins in each of the last two seasons (13 to 18 to 24) and ACC-win totals rise each year (eight to nine to 11). How the new-look Jackets will stand with all these new faces is something Collier plans to see.
She is confident that the cupboard isn’t completely bare, as the Jackets bring in four seniors — outside hitters Gabriela Stavnetchei, and Ashley Askin, middle blocker Sydney Wilson, the lone returning starter, and setter Gabby Benda, while sophomore MB Kodie Comby earned floor time last season.
There’s a lot to be determined by Collier and staff this weekend, who is still curious about what to expect.
“I’m not sure,” said Collier, with a laugh. “How much of the learning curve and how fast we will be able to close that gap and sustain the level that we finished playing last fall is going to be pretty much up to them. Obviously our goal this spring is to develop the players that we have here now, for them to be in the best position possible to help those young players when they come in in the fall.”
Benda sees Saturday as an opportunity to take a positive first step as far as establishing home court at O’Keefe, where the Jackets were 11-2 last season and are 28-13 under Collier.
“It being our first home tournament, we’re really going to try to set the tone as far as our culture and what we’re building for this season,” said Benda, who had 310 assists and a .949 serve percentage (second only to Askin among returners) in 30 matches, with five starts, covering 80 sets. “We lost five of our seniors from last season so there’s only eight of us right now. I think that puts more pressure as far as how we’re doing and focusing on the group that we have now. So when the freshmen DO come this summer they have a good idea of what they’re going to be working with and just what we have to show for this next season.”
The Jackets got their first test of the spring as a team last weekend, when they traveled to Chattanooga to participate in an eight-team tournament, playing Kennesaw State, Tennessee Tech and Lee University.
“In our last tournament the teams played super hard. They had a lot of energy and I think that’s something that we’re going to have to be ready for,” said Benda. “The teams we played last week did give us some good competition as far as the energy that they brought and the scrappiness. We’ve had good competition but this weekend will definitely be more difficult. So we’re really going to have to focus and have more of a game plan and just be ready for Saturday.”
Comby is excited to tee it up against another team and sees this weekend as another step forward.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Comby, who had 111 kills, a .256 hitting percentage, 34 blocks in 31 matches, with six starts covering 82 sets and is one of three players looking to get court time at middle blocker, along with Wilson and junior Lauren Frerking. “It was really different getting used to the other team. In practice we try to make it as game-like as possible but we do know the tendencies of our own players, which helps, I guess, but also doesn’t help as much during games. I think as the season goes and as the spring goes we’ll kind of figure out how we are.”
There’s a lot of potential court time to be filled and production to replace. Collier feels the more contributors the better.
“Our team last year, I think Teegan carried a very heavy load. Our goal is to be able to be a little more balanced with our offense this next fall,” said Collier. “But of course you always need to have somebody that creates points for you and be a leader. (Stavnetchei), I think, has got a step ahead on that position because of how much she played last year and what she’s doing but she’s going to have some good competition with all the other kids that are going to be coming in in that position as well. So it will be an exciting preseason to try to figure all that out.”