The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
Michelle Collier was in a great mood on Sunday morning.
Her Georgia Tech volleyball team had finished a four-matches-in-36-hours sprint, also known as the Hyatt Regency Invitational, 4-0, with wins over Idaho State and Winthrop on Friday then Abilene Christian and Georgetown on Saturday. The last three wins came via sweep as the Jackets won their final 10 sets of the weekend.
“It’s a great start to a long season,” said Collier, who came into her fifth season as head coach with a 68-58 record.
Especially pleasing was the ability to close teams out. Tech was 6-1 in sets decided by five-or-fewer points.
“Something that we have been talking about as a group, is the time is now. Make sure that we maximize the opportunities that we have to do the things that we can do, not do things longer than we need to, making sure that we’re capitalizing,” she said. “I was really proud of just how they took care of business. For a young group like that to have that mentality and be able to finish teams off, it’s really good, especially at the beginning of the season, where we’re so very inconsistent with what we can do. So it’s an exciting place to be.”
Being 4-0 is place they have now been twice in the last three years, but with very different teams.
The last time they were there was 2016, with a senior-laden team that would record the first 20-win season and their most ACC wins in seven years, and the most wins in a season in 12, going 24-8, 15-5 in the ACC, just getting nudged out of a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The 2018 team has seven freshmen on the roster with one senior and had four of those newcomers — outside hitters Mikaila Dowd, Mariana Brambilla, setter Matti McKissock and libero/defensive specialist Maddie Tippett — in the starting lineup.
The youngsters came out storming.
Dowd debuted in style, earning ACC Freshman of the Week, nailing a team-high 50 kills on the weekend, with 22 coming in her debut against Idaho State — the most in a match by any active Jacket. She also had 11 digs in the match. Dowd had a 13 kill, 14 dig double-double that night against Winthrop and just missed a third vs. Abilene Christian, going for 9 and 9. Not to be outdone, Brambilla recorded three double-doubles in four matches, while McKissock was solid at setter, concluding with a 21 assist-10 dig double-double against Georgetown, and Tippett had a team-high 28 digs against Idaho State.
“We have a very talented group of freshmen and I think our returners have done a tremendous job of getting them ready over the summer,” said Collier. “It’s also a testament to the culture and the things that they’re teaching the freshmen, that they were able to come in, hit the ground running and not waste too much time. They’re a great fit to the things that we believe in, how we want to play the game and they fit in well within our culture.
“Our setter, two outsides, and a libero are not easy roles to play as freshman,” she added. “There’s a lot of responsibility in those positions. They had a great weekend.”
Heading into week two, freshmen lead Tech in kills (Dowd has 50, Brambilla’s next at 43), assists (McKissock has 87), and digs (Tippett has 59).
The non-freshmen were big up front, especially at middle blocker, where Lauren Frerking, the lone senior, and junior Kodie Comby set up an impenetrable blocking wall. Comby led the team with 20 swats (she also nailed a team-high six service aces), Frerking was next at 16 blocks.
“I think both Kodie (Comby) and Lauren Frerking did a great job this weekend,” Collier said. “That’s always a position that it’s really nice to have some experience in there because it’s a position that’s very hard. Strategically, we base our defense a lot on how our middles are going to help us stop their attack. Cori (Clifton) and Kendall (Wilson), they did a really good job of being physical on the right side, which is what we’ve been working on in that position, maximizing their physical ability. Every match they got better and Kodie and Lauren played a really consistent weekend for us. So it was very good to see the potential defensively of this team as much as offensively.”
The Jackets will look to continue the building process on Thursday, when they host round two of the Hyatt Regency Invitational. The Jackets play Alabama State (3-1), the team picked to win the SWAC at noon, then meet Wofford (1-2), picked third for the Southern Conference at 7 p.m. On Friday at noon they’ll meet South Alabama (1-2), picked for second in the Sun Belt Conference, then close against Tulane (3-0, heading into a Tuesday match), of the American Athletic Conference with 12 returning players at 7 p.m.
“Our preseason we’re playing some very talented teams. A lot of times the big names are not out there but there are good volleyball teams that do very well in their conference,” said Collier. “They definitely are going to challenge us in many ways that maybe even some of our ACC teams won’t. So our goal is to get ready for conference play and put ourselves in a position to learn every time that we get on the court, get better and play teams that are going to challenge us. We did that this weekend. I expect nothing less this upcoming tournament. We have to be better than we were this weekend. We are going to continue to get better.”
Collier is not concerned about this young team looking at the stats or the standings or, more important, looking past the upcoming opponents.
“They know better. We’ve talked about it in our locker room a lot. We also have a chip on our shoulders. We didn’t get picked to finish where we think we can finish in conference,” said Collier, referring to the Jackets being picked 10th in the preseason poll and not having a player on the preseason All-Conference team. “So it’s the same thing. We know that it doesn’t matter what other people think of things. When you get on that court and you play and you give it your best, you can challenge anybody in the country. I’m sure those teams are the same way. So we are very respectful of every opponent that we play but we also understand that we have no limits.
“We’re going to continue to face challenges. We weren’t as consistent as we need to be,” she added. “Now we have video material to study and see the little things that we might not be able to see live. So we’ll break down every skill, break down the details and see where we can make things better, make it a little cleaner, make it a little more efficient. We’ll keep working.”
As they got back to work, Collier got back to enjoying the position battles that keeps everyone in interested in practice and has the potential to make the Jackets dangerous down the road.
“Another strength of this group is the depth. We’ve got three or four players for each position,” she said. “Besides our setters (junior Lexi Dorn spelled McKissock nicely, dishing out 70 assists), everybody else has somebody else knocking on the door right there and somebody else that is pushing them every day in practice to make them better. Even though we can only play seven at a time, those seven represented well what we’re doing with this team.
“They’re fun to coach,” Collier added. “They get after it every day. We don’t have to worry about their effort and their energy and their intensity in our gym. That’s reassuring. When we can just focus on making them better volleyball players and they give you their best every day, it’s a fun place to be. We’re heading in the right direction and we’re building something really special.”