The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
There’s no one way to define senior leadership.
Proof of that will stand at center court on Friday night as Georgia Tech Volleyball (18-8, 11-4) bids a fond adieu to its seniors on Senior Night prior to its match against Clemson (11-16, 5-11) — the weekend concludes with a Sunday afternoon matinee against Notre Dame (18-7, 11-4).
Captain and middle blocker Kodie Comby, right side hitter Simone Spencer, setter Lexi Dorn, and defensive specialist/Liberos Emily Becker and Coral Kazaroff will each take their final bow in front of the fans at O’Keefe Gym.
It’s a bow well-earned. In their time with the Yellow Jackets, their contributions — often more behind-the-scenes — have played a key role in the class’ 73-49 overall record (a .598-win percentage) in its four years, and a sterling 47-16 ledger at O’Keefe Gym, (.746) and have grown over time. Each player has shone in her own way and has earned the respect of their teammates.
Kodie Comby has done things this season she’d never thought possible even if others did. It began with her captaincy.
“I think they kind of saw that as my sophomore year went on and that group of five seniors left,” recalled the Houston, Texas, native, who will have her mom, dad, aunt, cousin, and best friend in attendance Friday. “They were looking for someone to take ownership of that role. I watched my other teammates. I took some of the things that I liked that they did, left some of the things that I didn’t like that they did leadership-wise or that just didn’t match how I am as a person and just kind of figured out and molded my own role.”
Comby led by example in offseason workouts, helping early-enrollees who followed the same path she took back in 2016, then, once the season began, played with great consistency and efficiency. She enters the season’s final two weeks leading the country in hitting percentage (.458 — 112 points higher than her previous best season, and 161 better than her career average coming into the season). She also led off the floor, serving on the Student-Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB) her final three years.
“Just how we find ways to stay connected with other student-athletes, with the other students on campus as one community is always really important,” she said. “I think that the effort is really there.”
The effort also is really there and must stay there to get to their ultimate destination, the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a process, so trusting the process, trusting my teammates and what they can do and what they’ve been doing,” said Kodie, who graduates in December and hopes to land in commercial real estate. “Just keep doing what we’re doing and don’t let our foot off the gas.”
Simone Says, Do This!
Adding fuel as the team keeps its foot on the gas is Simone Spencer. The right side hitter from Smyrna, Ga., has been a big part of scout team in practice and a really big part of the spirited bench group that keeps the team fired up — especially on the road, where sometimes the team has to supply its own energy.
“I like to say that we’re kind of like having a party over there on the bench,” said Spencer, with a laugh. “We’re always coming up with something that we want our players to hear, as well as to — for lack of a better word — kind of shut the crowd up. We show that even though we’re not in O’Keefe, we’re alive and have a ton of energy. By the time the game is done everybody’s lost their voices. It is something we commit to every away game.”
Her “Rap Battles” have become the stuff of legend.
“It’s really just something we keep within our own bench. I’m just rapping to my teammates and they’re hyping me up,” Spencer said. “Maybe if we make it to the Tournament I’ll start battling some people on the other side. That’s just another thing I can add to get some energy to the players on the bench and on the court, as well.”
Simone, who will be represented by her mother, father, and older brother, is looking forward to one final Friday night at O’Keefe.
“That’s something I think I’m going to miss, the band and how much energy they supply to the gym. It really is electrifying,” she said. “All the opponents hate it there and I understand why they would. Honestly, it’s something that you fall in love with. You just get so excited throughout the week for game days on Fridays and Sundays.”
She’s also ready for what’s coming next, as she begins a six-month opportunity with a Miami-based construction company beginning in January — she’ll complete her Civil Engineering degree next year.
“I’m pretty excited that I actually have accepted a co-op opportunity,” said Spencer. “It does provide a feeling of security for me. I know that there is something that I have in the career field.”
Voluntarily getting in front of spikes is not for the faint of heart. It requires fearlessness, a big heart and fiery spirit. It’s also in the job description of the Defensive Specialist/Libero. Emily Becker has handled that for four years.
Harder for Becker is imagining the end of her collegiate career.
“It just feels kind of surreal,” said the Tucker, Ga., native, who is expecting her mom, dad, and sister to be in attendance Friday night. “It’s been an incredible journey. It’s hard to think that this is the last Friday night home game in O’Keefe Gym.”
Becker’s biggest season was 2017, when she made 65 digs, with 5 service aces and 7 assists in 62 sets over 25 matches, including 2 starts. For the past two seasons, she has assisted in the development of starting DS/L Maddie Tippett. Seeing Tippett’s and the entire team’s success this season is satisfying and easy to root for.
“I think of Maddie Tippett as my little sister so to see her out there excelling and getting digs and to see (OH) Mariana (Brambilla) and (OH) Julia (Bergmann) crushing it and (MB) Mikaila (Dowd) playing her best, and (setter) Matti McKissock, it’s really exciting,” she said. “I feel like we all see the hard work that we’re putting in come out through them on the court. So cheering for them and getting excited for them isn’t much of a task. We’ve had a really strong seven on the court and seeing them excel has been really exciting.
“Even though the crowd doesn’t see what it’s like in practice and that’s challenging each other and really getting after it, it’s that same intensity and excitement and fun that we have in practice we carry onto the bench during games,” she added. “We’re all really close. So it’s fun to just really channel that energy into supporting those seven and bringing out the best in them.”
It’s all about the greater good for Becker, who graduates in May and will pursue medical school or PA (Physician Assistant) school, with the ultimate goal being a health-care provider.
“I look at the past four years; we’ve had incredible girls on the team. I’ve loved each team for different reasons,” she said. “The excitement and energy of O’Keefe and that home environment is probably what’s most special about and what’s most consistent across the four years.”
The Pursuit of Lexi-lence
Lexi Dorn may have only played her final two years at Georgia Tech after transferring from Purdue, but it was a special two years.
“I feel very fortunate to have kind of found my second family at Tech,” said the San Diego, Calif., native, who will have her mom, dad and best friend from Purdue in attendance Friday. “There are not enough good words to describe how amazing my teammates are and how much I’ve enjoyed my time with them.”
Dorn’s top season statistically came in 2018, when in 32 matches (four starts), she dished out 4.42 assists per set, handing out at least 20 assists six times, including a career-best 41 against Tulane on Aug. 31 — she also made three blocks against the Green Wave. Her impact in practice and in supporting setter Matti McKissock can’t be understated.
A transfer can at times feel like an outsider, Lexi showed her leadership by making sure no one ever felt that way. Like a true setter, she tried to get everyone involved.
“I wanted to make sure all of my teammates felt valued on the team because I didn’t get that a lot my freshman year,” she said. “I wanted all the freshman to always feel valued and always feel like they have a voice on this team. I’ve tried to make that evident not only in matches on the sidelines but during practices — giving encouragement as well as constructive feedback.”
Her easy-going personality has been contagious and beneficial.
“I, personally, never want to go a day without laughing or smiling. So it’s always been my goal to make those around me happy and encourage our teammates,” she said. “A lot of times, when we get in those tight situations, everyone can get very tense so being that smiling face that they can turn to and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got this,’ small encouraging things to tell your teammates I feel has definitely paid off this year. Everybody is so engaged during the game. We’re constantly supporting each other. It’s just an awesome environment.”
Lexi knows her next environment. She has accepted a position for an operations leadership development program with Minneapolis- based company in June, a month after graduation but isn’t letting go of her current one with GT volleyball.
“It’s such a relief but there’s still a lot of work I have to do,” she said. “I have to continue working hard in the classroom as well as pushing my teammates but it’s a little bit of an extra gratitude coming up to the Thanksgiving timeframe. I’m looking forward to this weekend and hopefully postseason.”
All in the Nuclear Family
No one will enjoy the O’Keefe crowd’s adulation Friday night more than DS/L Coral Kazaroff.
She should. She has the unique perspective of having felt the wrath of the Tech faithful, her first two years as a Virginia Cavalier.
“I definitely prefer being on our side,” said the Apex, N.C., native, who’ll have her parents in attendance on Friday, with a laugh. “It’s such a crazy difference because being on the other side, the whole crowd and environment and energy is against you. O’Keefe definitely has a noticeable aura compared to all the other gyms. Having all that energy be on the positive side for you is just a lot nicer than having it be against you. I’m just taking in everything at the moment and just enjoying it for the last time.”
Kazaroff hit her statistical apex last season, recording 141 digs (1.74 per match), including a career-best 22 last Sept. 15 against Arkansas, in 81 matches (28 starts), with five service aces and 21 assists.
This season, she’s gone 100 percent every day, continuing to be a model teammate.
How she finds the energy might surprise some, as she’s majoring in Nuclear and Radiological Engineering, the only GT student-athlete doing so — the program only admits 20 students a year.
Volleyball has made the perfect alternate outlet and will create a void she’ll look to fill.
“I’ll miss just getting to do something that I love every day,” she said. “Whether it’s the work required every day at practice to give your all or in the offseason when everyone’s trying to get through the difficult workouts.”
Coral finishes undergrad in the fall, but is far from done.
“I’ll be staying here for my master’s in Nuclear Engineering and then, most likely, my Ph.D. afterward,” she said. “So I’ll be at Tech for a while.”
That means she’ll also be around the program for a while.
“I’m sure I’ll find stuff do with volleyball,” she said, adding with a laugh. “They’ll see me in the corner of O’Keefe at some of the matches.”