The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
For the last couple of years, Georgia Tech has been on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament.
The Yellow Jackets plan to change that and are looking to the outside to get that accomplished.
They appear to have found the answer out there in 6-1 Mikaila Dowd and 5-11 Mariana Brambilla. The freshmen came to Atlanta from very different places — Dowd from Naperville, Ill. (about 30 miles outside Chicago), Brambilla from Porto Alegre, Brazil — but they’re leading Tech’s charge toward the common destination of the NCAAs.
“Mikaila’s getting better and better. She’s understanding more and more about the responsibilities at that position and getting more comfortable with that,” said Head Coach Michelle Collier. “We always talk to her about playing as physically as she can and being aggressive. She’s getting more and more comfortable in doing those things. It’s fun to see her development.
“Mariana is a very consistent hitter for that position. She makes very few errors,” Collier added. “The next step now is to get her to continue to play aggressive and physical and some other areas of her game that need to get better. But she’s doing a really good job. She’s playing consistent, they’re playing solid outside for that position and play all the way around. They really don’t get a break.”
They don’t seem to need one. Certainly not as badly as Tech’s opponents need a break from them. Through two weeks, the duo is 1-2 on the team in kills, (Brambilla has 108, Dowd’s at 104 — Kodie Comby is next at 57) and total attack (Brambilla, 302, Dowd, 286, Comby is next at 110). They’re even at the top in digs, as only libero Maddie Tippett (126) has more than Brambilla (87) and Dowd (68). Brambilla also leads the team with 11 service aces.
eople are noticing. Dowd was named ACC Freshman of the Week of the Hyatt Regency Invitational, while Brambilla claimed week two, after winning Hyatt Regency Tournament MVP.
“The award was extremely exciting and it was extremely unexpected,” said Dowd, who nailed 22 kills in her collegiate debut and has double-figure kills in each of her past three matches. “I’m not the kind of person who ever sees myself that way. I see myself as ‘Michelle tells me to go out and play and I go out and play for my team, play for my coaches and whatever happens, happens.’ That I got so many accolades in my first tournament here was just kind of like a culture shock. I just hope that I can keep it up and keep impressing and keep being there for my teammates. Volleyball is the kind of game that you can always rely on your teammates and they can help you and you can execute that way.”
Dowd’s a fierce competitor, always has been as she’s had to compete with her older brother, and terrific role model, Joseph Jones, a linebacker with the Denver Broncos, who also graduated from Northwestern.
“I always joke with my mom how I’m like the best kid. I’m going to Georgia Tech, I’m on the volleyball team, I’m super-nice,” said Dowd. “She’s always saying, ‘Well Joseph is in the NFL. That’s a pretty good feat.’ I’m like, Anyone can make the NFL.’ I was always joking around, but when I was in high school I would always compare myself to him because he was really good in high school, really good in college.
“Now it’s fun. When he does something great I like to give him a shout out for it and when I do something great he does the same thing,” she added. “So it’s less competitive, more supportive but when I was younger I didn’t want people to know me because of Joseph. I wanted them to know me because of me. I wanted to set my own records, make my own legacy.”
She got off to a good start award-wise, having won freshman of the week but she admits that making the honor roll four straight years at Metea Valley High School ranks as highly as setting the single season and career kills records there.
“I’ve always prided myself on my academics,” said Dowd, who chose Georgia Tech for its biomedical engineering program. “I mean victories on the court are amazing but I feel like what’s going to affect me in the long run are more like the victories I have in the classroom. I’m very proud of both of them.
“Catch me at 12:00 coming out of class, I will say, ‘That honor roll, that’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done,’” she added, with a laugh.
For Brambilla, coming to Georgia Tech may be the best thing she’s done. Attracted by countrymen Collier and assistant Claudio Pinheiro, the fit has been natural.
Like Dowd, she has come out swinging, recording five double-doubles nailing a career-best 19 kills against South Alabama — the day after getting 18 against Wofford. Her 55 kills, 47 digs, and double-doubles in all four matches, led to her MVP honor. She heads into this weekend ninth in the ACC in kills per set (3.60) and eighth in points per set (4.20)
More impressive is that Brambilla began playing at age 12 as a middle blocker, moving to the outside two years ago.
“In the beginning it was really hard for me to receive the ball because I’d never done this before,” she said. “So I needed to learn really fast how to do it and how to change my way to play. But now I feel like I couldn’t go back and play as a middle or as a right-side hitter. Now I really know that I can do better as an outside hitter than as a middle or right-side.”
Tech has showed that it can play all kinds of matches the first two weeks — putting away teams in three or outlasting opponents in five-setters.
Mariana points to team chemistry.
“I think it’s really good. We really create a good relationship and we are trying to put energy and trying to help each other,” she said. “I think it’s really important to be together.”
She especially likes the chemistry with Dowd.
“It’s really fun because we are talking with each other all the time,” she said. “When she’s hitting, I’m saying, ‘I’m going to stay here to protect you as you hit.’ We’re communicating all the time. I think it is really important for us to create this bond.”
The Jackets will take their bond and the second-longest winning streak in the Collier era — Tech won 10 straight from Oct. 2-Nov. 4, 2016 — out on the road for the first time this weekend, playing in the Hampton Inn Bama Bash, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
They’ll meet Northern Illinois at 1 p.m. ET on Friday then host Alabama at 8 p.m., before closing the tournament against Marshall on Saturday at noon. The Jackets are a combined 7-0 against the teams all-time (1-0 against Northern Illinois and Marshall, 5-0 against Alabama), although they haven’t met Marshall since 1996, Alabama since 2003 and Northern Illinois since 2009.
Tech also hasn’t started 8-0 since 2003, when Bond Shymansky’s squad raced out to a 23-0 start on its way to an ACC Championship and an NCAA Regional Final. That powerhouse team featured first-team all-American setter Kele Eveland, third-team all-American outside hitter Lynnette Moster — both in the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame — and middle Alexandra Preiss and outside Lauren Sauer, both honorable mentions.
This team knows it’s not on the level of that team yet but they know they can get far by playing consistently and reaching for their goals.
“We have a lot of goals that we’ve set for ourselves,” said Dowd. “These are very high goals and we know exactly what we need to do to reach them. Right now we’re on the way there and it’s really exciting for us. We know that there is more that we can do. So putting on paper, ‘This is what I want,’ and actually seeing yourself achieve it is really exciting.”
“The team is really good so we have to keep doing what we are doing but get better,” said Brambilla. “We have to keep growing. We have to keep getting better.”