The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
About the only thing more satisfying than qualifying for postseason is qualifying for postseason when nobody expects you to.
Georgia Tech volleyball will get its chance to experience that kind of euphoria on Thursday at 7 p.m., when the Yellow Jackets take the floor at O’Keefe Gym to play the University of South Florida Bulls in the first round of the National Invitation Volleyball Championship.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for our group to continue to get better and put ourselves in that kind of scenario — do or die every match. It’s a great opportunity for us to keep taking steps in the right direction,” said head coach Michelle Collier, whose squad finished 17-14, 6-12 in ACC play. “It’s a big step. It is not easy. It’s not easy making it to this postseason.”
The NCAA tournament was the primary goal but getting back to postseason is a big deal for Georgia Tech, which hadn’t been to postseason since 2009. That ‘09 team was loaded, featuring GT volleyball legends Monique Mead, that year’s Freshman of the Year, setter Mary Ashley Tippens, and outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis, all first-team all-ACC and future all-ACC outside hitter Bailey Hunter.
This team fields one senior, had no one in preseason all-ACC consideration and played four freshmen in regular rotation.
“There hasn’t been such a young squad at Georgia Tech with that many freshmen competing and playing such important roles, so this was a huge year for us with how young we were,” said Collier. “A lot of players have been working really hard to bring Georgia Tech back to postseason and consistently competing in the postseason. This group has done a really good job even though they’re so young laying the foundation, understanding what it takes to get there. This was a huge learning season for us. Being able to extend our season and compete for a championship here, I think it’s a big deal for this group.”
Freshman outside hitters Mikaila Dowd and Mariana Brambilla have been a big deal, both named ACC all-freshman, with Dowd doubling up by earning second team all-ACC honors.
“They have been our go-to players all season, they’ve been super consistent with what has been demanded out of them and a lot has been demanded out of them, as young and at that position,” said Collier. “The last time we had two freshmen on the all-freshman team was 2005. Mikaila and Mariana, they played the go-to player roles the whole time. On the outside, in serve-receive and defense, that’s who teams scouted to defend us and who they wanted to stop in our offense. So I think that they really played very mature for their age and are very deserving of being recognized as among the best freshmen in our conference.”
That recognition caught Dowd and Brambilla by surprise.
“I expected to take a year and get my foot in the door, then really start playing the way I saw myself playing,” said Dowd, who needed all of one weekend to show she belonged, winning her first of two ACC Freshman of the Week awards, and finished the season sixth in the ACC (second among freshmen) with 3.69 kills per set, and had 10 double-doubles, topped by a 20-kill, 21-dig night Nov. 4 vs. Virginia, and a 26-kill match Oct. 26 vs. North Carolina. “It’s something that I didn’t really expect to get. Everyone has been so amazing and so supportive.”
“Mariana is kind of like my partner in crime,” Dowd continued. “Since we’re always in together, I think it’s really cool that we’re equally successful. We’ve been through so much and have worked so hard together and we’ve both been able to be so fruitful in our season, it’s just really cool to see. I’m just so proud of her and I’m so proud of the way we worked together.”
Brambilla, was as equally surprised by the honor, despite also twice winning ACC Freshman of the Week, starting all 31 matches, averaging a double-double (12.7 kills/match, 10.9 digs), leading the team in kills (395), digs (339) and attack points (1,150) with 15 double-doubles but is also as thrilled to have earned it with Dowd.
“It was really nice because we help each other a lot,” she said. “I was really happy for her I’m really happy for this. This was really crazy because I didn’t expect it at all.”
Collier expects the team to continue to show the growth it has all season and learn from this pressure-cooker.
“The matches are going to be a good experience for us, to play in that type of pressure, of having to have that one chance to execute and play our best match,” she said. “I think it will be really, really important as we’re laying out a good, solid foundation with this group towards our goal of ultimately being back in the NCAAs and compete for an ACC Championship.”
Getting to play at O’Keefe will definitely be advantageous, as the Jackets were 14-5 in their home gym.
“We had a great season at home,” said Collier. “We had some really good performances so to be able to stay in our comfort zone and in an environment where we can feed off the energy of our fans and our band and all that O’Keefe brings to the match, that’s a huge opportunity. We’re very thankful that our administration is supporting us in that regard. We get a huge opportunity playing at O’Keefe. We just have to go seize the moment.”
The players are ready to ride that energy.
“It’s going to be really, really cool,” said Dowd. “A lot of our friends have said they’re going to come support us, they’re going to get painted up and sit in the front row. It’s cool to start this journey with everyone that we love, with so much support and not having to do it on the road, in a new environment.”
“This is really exciting because O’Keefe is really a good place to play,” said Brambilla. “There is always the cheering and the band. The energy here is really good.”
The Jackets’ first opponent, USF (20-11, 9-9, tied for fifth in the American Athletic Conference), adds extra incentive, especially for Collier, who was a senior in 2002, the last time the Bulls saw postseason. Tech’s coach attended USF from 1998-2002, where she was AVCA third team all-America as a senior, was Conference USA Freshman of the Year, two-time Conference USA Player of the Year, four-time first-team all-C-USA, was inducted into the USF Hall of Fame in 2011, (she’d be named the Conference Player of the Decade), and still is the program’s all-time leader in kills (2,729, more than 900 ahead) and digs (1,747, around 300 more) and ranks second in aces (257).
“My jersey’s hanging in that gym,” said Collier, whose number 10 is the school’s first volleyball jersey number retired. “They’re having a great year and it’s their first time going back to postseason since 2002 so it’s an exciting time for them, as well. I’m happy they’re doing that well but sad a little bit that we’re going to have to battle them here in the first round. It’s a school that holds a special place in my heart, for sure. It’s going to be a fun match and a very challenging match for us right out of the gate.”
Collier said the Jackets are extra-hyped to get this win for their coach.
“I got a text from (senior middle blocker) Lauren Frerking. We just knew we were in. We were waiting to see the draw. She was like, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to beat up on your old school,’” Collier said, with a laugh. “So I know they’re excited. They know that it means a lot. We’ve got that little extra layer of fun competition there.”
Should the Jackets beat USF they would take on the winner of College of Charleston and St. John’s on Friday at 7 p.m. Win that then next weekend, they could face Clemson, who also hosts this weekend, at a site to be determined. Tech beat Clemson, 3-2 at O’Keefe during the regular season.
But that’s way down the road. First things first: USF on Thursday night.
“I think that by now we have an understanding of what makes us a good team and what are some of the things that don’t help us be as good as we can be,” Dowd said. “Our challenge is to be at our best Thursday night. We just have to keep it as, ‘One more match at home. Go do what you love to do.’”
Dowd expects no fear from the young Jackets.
“It’s the same game that we play every single day,” she said. “It’s the same court, same size, same height of the net, same six people on our side. No matter who you play or where you play, the game never changes. So as long as you keep that in the back of your mind, you can do anything.
“For us to be in this position and have this amazing opportunity that we have worked hard for, to make it a reality is really cool,” she added. “