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#TGW: No. 1 with a Bullet

The Good Word | by Jon Cooper

Kodie Comby is unfazed by hearing, “You’re No. 1!”

She shouldn’t be. It’s the jersey number she’s worn at Georgia Tech for four years now.

Similarly, Comby is unfazed by hearing, “You’re No. 1 in the country in hitting percentage.”

She should be. It’s a crown she’s wearing for the first time. Yet she’s not and won’t be as she defends that crown this weekend when the Jackets (10-7, 3-3) host Wake Forest (11-6, 1-5) Friday night (a 7 p.m. start) then Duke (8-11, 1-5) Sunday afternoon (match begins at 2:30). She’s unfazed because she’s not doing this alone.

“It’s exciting but I can’t do it without our passes,” said the senior middle blocker, whose .468 hitting percentage is seven points higher than Arizona senior MB Devyn Cross and 28 better than junior MB Amaka Chukwujekwu, the nearest ACC player. “Our passes have been so much better. ‘Matt’ (setter Matti McKissock) is doing a really good job of spreading the offense. Just keeping up the consistency with all of us is really important.”

“I think that our passing has done a great job,” said head coach Michelle Collier. “(Outside Hitter) Mikaila (Dowd), (OH) Julia (Bergmann, ACC Freshman of the Week), (Defensive Specialist/Libero) Maddie (Tippett), who are our primary passers, have been super consistent this season putting themselves and giving (McKissock) options and Kodie has done a great job terminating her opportunities and making the most out of her opportunities. It has also opened up space for everybody around her as well. So not only are her numbers getting better but our attacking numbers get better. Our ball-control and our serve-receive and defense as well have definitely given us a next level of things that we can do with our offense.”

Consistency has been the key for Comby, who has raised her hitting percentage every season – she hit .256 as a freshman, .268 as a sophomore, and .346 last year.

“She’s playing as a mature player,” said Collier. “She has worked a lot in a lot of different areas of her game and I think the biggest thing is just her consistency in her approach to practice, her leadership, her wanting to be a strong example for the people behind her and just really buying into some of the conversations we have been having since last spring. What are some of the things that she can do that can impact the team? She has bought in and figured out every single one of them and has had a pretty consistent, just a solid season so far.”

Having a solid season is one thing. But leading the country? That’s uncharted waters for most.

Fortunately, it’s familiar territory for Tech’s first-year assistant coach Arielle Wilson.

While at Penn State in 2009, Wilson set the still-standing NCAA single-season record for hitting percentage, .540 (21 points higher than the mark Florida A&M’s Tyrona Clark had held for 21 years). Her .468 career hitting percentage also is still the standard for the Nittany Lions program.

A three-time All-American, four-time national champion then five-year pro, Wilson is passing on the tips that made her the country’s most accurate hitter then. The result is Comby’s ascension to the status of the country’s most accurate hitter now.

An important point in improving Kodie’s accuracy was getting her to relax and accept occasionally being inaccurate.

“It’s just limiting her errors. I know when we first started she was stressed out about the fact that she wasn’t hitting the right way or hitting balls out,” Wilson said. “I think she’s been really effective with her speed, alone, but just making sure that she’s keeping the ball in play. Also, we’ve been working on her vision, forcing her, in warm-ups, to hit more lines because she can hit cross and she’s been really effective, even against three blockers. Her vision, alone, has been great.”

Wilson also traces Comby’s rise back to her attitude.

“One of the things that I have noticed about Kodie is her genuineness. With genuineness comes the point of you know you’re not as good as you can be,” Wilson said. “So with her being hungry in that sense she’s always leading by example but she’s always eager to make sure things are left in the right way. You’ve really seen a change in her over these past few months even with taking initiative of being a leader and leading by example.”

Comby credits Wilson’s ability to communicate — verbally and sometimes even on the court — for the entire team’s success.

“She gives me a lot of tips. She’s really big about not making errors and if the ball is not a good one, just keep it in play or tip it to where it will get the team out of system,” Kodie said. “She’s really smart, she was a really good player, still is — she’ll still practice with us and kick our butts. She always has feedback, which is really important. Just knowing once we do something good there’s always something better that we can do and that she expects from us.”

The Jackets are listening, taking that feedback and running — and hitting — with it. The team ranks second in the conference in hitting percentage, at .265, only eight points behind Pittsburgh. Comby believes this isn’t just a result of physical talent.

“I also think it’s an IQ thing. We know that if you slam the ball and if it’s a bad ball and you try and power through the block, a lot of times that’s not going to happen,” she said. “It’s being smart about it and being intentional with where you’re placing the ball instead of just free-balling it over, tipping it over to a spot where it will get the defense out of system or even try and score a point with it.”

The Jackets hope to use those smarts and physical skills this weekend. They’ll look to match their season-high three-match winning streak on Friday and get back on the winning track at O’Keefe, after seeing their six-match home-winning streak snapped in their last home match, Sept. 29 against Boston College.

The Demon Deacons and Blue Devils began play Friday having lost four of five (Duke plays at Clemson Friday night) — coincidentally both have beaten Syracuse in the skein, on the same weekend (Oct. 4 and 6) — and both sport winning records on the road and have better winning percentages than they have at home. Tech is 9-4 since 2010 against Wake, 5-1 in the Demon Deacons’ last six visits to Atlanta, while they are 3-2 against Duke since 2015, when they exorcised a 12-match losing streak.

Comby is throwing records out and isn’t taking anything for granted.

“We need to make sure we don’t underestimate them because Wake Forest gave us a loss last year (1-3 in Winston Salem), and Duke is always really good and really consistent (the Jackets beat the Blue Devils, 3-1, in Durham last year),” she said. “We know that they’re going to get their kills and they’re going to get scrappy plays and they’re going to make plays but just keep our side clean, be confident in our skills and then use the advantage that we have of our home court. Our fans love volleyball and we love the fans and it’s a great environment to play in.”

They also love winning. The Jackets snapped a five-match losing streak last weekend with their back-to-back road sweeps, at Clemson then at Virginia Tech. It was the first time Tech had such road success since Oct. 5 and 7, 2016 (at Clemson and Virginia). Comby, then a freshman, remembers that weekend well.

“Man, that was just a very consistent year,” she said. “We had five seniors and they all had significant playing time. They had all been here four years so they really knew what they were doing. They were confident in their abilities. It was a fun year. They were all very competitive.”

Now a senior, Comby’s taking the lead in keeping this team very competitive. She’d like to follow up the way that ‘16 team did — they finished 11-3 following the road sweeps.

“It really all starts and stems from practice, making sure that our practices are intentional and intense,” she said. “We have to know that these teams can play their best game against us. I think that sometimes we have trouble playing some matches once we start winning because we get a little bit too excited or maybe sometimes underestimate a team. So always be confident in what we can do but not too much.”

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