It’s not easy to find O’Keefe Gym whether you’re walking on campus or driving by.
There’s nothing that makes the building, the home of Yellow Jackets volleyball since 1995, stand out — at least not from the outside.
It’s a different story inside, as what’s transpired inside O’Keefe — especially this season — is something very special and something any coach anywhere would love to find.
When Georgia Tech (17-8, 10-4) takes the floor on Sunday afternoon against NC State (10-16, 5-9), they’ll bring in a 10-1 home record, tied for the best in the ACC with national No. 2 Pittsburgh, and a four-match winning streak, during which they’ve won all 12 sets. They haven’t dropped a set since the fifth set on Sept. 29th against Boston College.
They’re hoping for a little easier time from the Nov. 3 match with the Wolfpack, where they stared down being 1-2, and down 23-15 in the fourth set before rallying, closing that game on a 10-0 run then squeaking by in the decisive fifth set, 15-11. The win, which extended their win streak to eight (that ended on Nov. 8, with a hard-fought, five-set loss at Pittsburgh) was special.
“It was huge. That’s the kind of thing that you only hear about and never actually get to experience,” said sophomore outside hitter Mikaila Dowd. “You kind of forget that it’s really possible to lose. I don’t think there was a time that any of us actually thought we were going to lose. We were like, ‘We’re going to win this. I don’t know HOW it’s going to happen but we’re going to win.’ It ended up working in our favor and we ended up being able to fight back and take the set.”
Sounds like the kind of special things that happen when the Yellow Jackets are playing at home.
“It definitely gives us some extra confidence. I think more than anything extra energy to play at another level,” said head coach Michelle Collier, whose teams are 73-28, a .723 winning percentage in home matches. “We’re comfortable at home. Our gym is one of the best playing environments in the country. It’s a huge advantage to be at O’Keefe. It definitely adds extra to our energy, to our intensity, which is great because I think our team is high-energy and intense. O’Keefe just brings everything up another level. There’s nothing like being live and loud at O’Keefe!”
Being at home matters to the players.
“O’Keefe is home for us,” said Dowd. “There is a huge level of comfort that we have playing there and it’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people that aren’t used to that.”
“It’s a big thing. We love playing at O’Keefe. There’s nowhere like it to play,” said sophomore libero Maddie Tippett. “I’m so glad I’m on the Georgia Tech side and not having to be the opponent trying to walk in here and trying to play in the atmosphere that O’Keefe brings. We’re super-excited. We can’t wait to be out on the court.”
Who can blame her? On the court you at least have room to move.
But that’s part of what makes O’Keefe’s advantage so big — that the facility is not.
“It’s very intimate and the fans are very engaged and involved in the match, which is pretty awesome,” Tippett said. “Especially when you try to go for a ball that comes off the block or is dinked off to the side, you really can feel those fans. Sometimes you really run right into them.”
Of course, Tech’s fans won’t bother to wait for opponents to make contact with them. They’re more than willing to reach out and make contact, through their cheering and the band’s playing.
“The energy is 100 percent Georgia Tech, it’s 100 percent positive in our favor and it’s really hard for people to come into such a hectic environment and play to their full potential,” said Dowd. “We thrive in these huge crowds because that’s what we’re used to. I think we put a lot of teams out of their comfort zone when they come here. It’s amazing, especially when we do win. All the people cheering for us, the fight song playing, it’s an amazing positive energy. It’s really hard to combat that when it’s not for you.”
“Our band, they’re amazing,” said Tippett. “They’re so energetic. It’s just so awesome to play and being able to hear everybody cheering, it’s awesome. It’s super-fun.”
Often the cheering and the band are the only thing anyone can hear. That’s not as fun for opposing coaches trying to communicate.
“One of the main things is the noise and how a lot of them go outside for timeouts. There are times I want to leave the gym during a timeout, it’s so loud,” said Collier, with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘They’ve got to go do whatever it is they need to do to deal with the situation here.’ It’s always interesting to see how everybody is going to react. We’ve gotten used to it, I think using a drawing board helps a lot of times when showing things and getting their attention. It’s up to the opponents to figure out what is going to work for them.”
To that end, opponents have tried simulating the O’Keefe atmosphere to get more comfortable. Based on Tech’s all-time .733 winning percentage (.909 this season) and fourth straight season of double-digit home wins, something they hadn’t done season since 2004-07, those efforts are not working. The Jackets players admit they enjoy watching them try, though.
“I remember last year one of the teams was practicing — we saw video of them practicing in their home gym — they had simulated all this noise and music and loudness for them to practice in a game-like situation because they weren’t used to that environment,” said Dowd. “I thought that was hilarious but that’s just how things are here, that they had to practice putting themselves in our gym atmosphere. I’m guessing it is an adjustment.”
“A few teams would come in here and practice before matches,” Tippett recalled. “We could just hear them playing super-loud music just to try to get ready for the environment here, which is kind of funny and is exciting because that is a whole other element O’Keefe brings that they have to worry about.
“One of my friends that I played with in club and in high school, was saying how she just hates playing at O’Keefe because she has to battle the team and the whole environment of the crowd and the band,” Tippett said. “It’s funny when teams have to leave the gym itself and go outside of the doors to just be able to listen to their coaches and their coaches be able to talk to them because the band is so loud and the place is so intimate. It just echoes in here. We just love it.”
Collier believes that deep down, opposing coaches do, too — the two-plus-hours of match play notwithstanding.
“As much as they hate to play here, they love it,” said Collier, with a laugh. “Everybody enjoys a good environment, a good volleyball environment. They wish their environments were like that a lot of times. So coaches, as much as they hate it, they’re also excited that volleyball has such environments as that as well. We all love the game, we love to see it grow and we love when people get excited about the game, about the teams that they’re supporting — even if it’s against you sometimes. It’s still pro-volleyball and pro-student athletes. So I think that every coach, as much as they hate playing here, they appreciate the environment and what Georgia Tech does for volleyball.”
Georgia Tech would like to do something they haven’t done since 2009, that is get to the NCAA Tournament. The Jackets enter the weekend in a four-way tie for second place in the conference, the highest standing in the Collier era, tied with Florida State, Notre Dame and North Carolina. They hold the tiebreaker on the Seminoles and Tar Heels, but have an advantage on all three, in that three of their final four matches are at home, including a rematch with Notre Dame.
“It’s a huge advantage,” said Collier. “We can keep our routine, we don’t have to miss classes, there are a lot of things that being at home helps besides the fact of just being at O’Keefe and playing in a familiar space with people cheering for you and having your back. It’s just a layer of support here that’s really exciting.”
The players call their fans the wild card in this charge towards the NCAA Tournament. The team hopes the “Wild” part of that resumes and carries over through next week’s final home weekend.
“I hope so,” said Collier. “Our team is at a crucial point in our season, where we’re really trying to make a statement and finish up the season as well as possible and definitely take advantage of our home environment, it’s a big thing. We hope that our students are coming out, we hope our supporters are coming out and continue to come out and continue to make O’Keefe one of the most hated places to play. People don’t like coming here. We’d like to keep it that way.”