Aug. 26, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It doesn’t take much to get Michelle Collier pumped about volleyball.
These days, the third-year volleyball coach at Georgia Tech is even more pumped than usual, as her volleyball world couldn’t be more Utopian.
The native Brazilian saw her home country win Olympic gold in men’s AND women’s volleyball, and gold and silver in beach volleyball.
Now Collier’s excitement is based on her 2016 Yellow Jackets. The team is loaded and experienced, featuring five seniors and four juniors, and returning 97 percent of its kills (1,595) and 95 percent of its digs (1,821) from last season.
She tempered preseason optimism, wanting to see how the team looked on the floor. She similarly tempered it after last Saturday’s Gold/White Scrimmage, waiting to see how things would unfold against an opponent other than Georgia Tech.
The time for tempering is over, officially ending at 8 p.m. ET on Friday, when the Yellow Jackets open up their 2016 season against host Auburn in the War Eagle Invitational, being held at Auburn Arena. Pacific and Furman round out the field, with the Jackets playing the Tigers on Saturday morning at 10:30, and then closing with the Paladins at 6 p.m. (all times Eastern).
She’s ready, as is the team.
“We’re locked in. We’re very invested into the season and what we can do and very invested in each other and making each other the best version of ourselves that we can,” said Collier, who is coming off an 18-14 (9-11) 2015. “I think it has been a big focus to make other people around you better, push your teammates, challenge them. We have competed as well as we have ever competed here in preseason since I’ve been here.
“I feel like we’re a very different team than we were last year,” she added. “My focus has been on ‘How can we be the best version of Georgia Tech volleyball when we get [to Auburn]?’”
Senior outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst, an honorable mention All-America last season and a preseason All-ACC selection after leading the ACC in kills last season, likes the state of the team leaving the Flats and heading toward the Plains.
“I think we’ve all played pretty well and we’re looking forward to getting things going,” she said. “We have a lot of depth this year, which is good. Anybody can come in at any time and step up and do the job and get the job done. I think we’re at a good place with a lot of returnees and a couple of new people and they’re getting acclimated really fast. Now we can get down to business.”
With five returning starters, including right side hitter Annika Van Gunst, setter Rebecca Martin, middle blocker Lauren Pitz and defensive specialist/libero London Ackermann, and an upperclassmen-laden team, experience is a trump card.
“The chemistry is there,” said junior middle blocker Sydney Wilson, the team’s leading blocker last season with 126 rejections. “We have a lot of seniors, this is their last go-round so everybody is just going to give it their all this season.This year should be fun. Like our coach tells us all the time, ‘There’s not just six starters.’ It’s nice to know that everybody can play, everybody can come in and do their part.”
Georgia Tech hopes to continue their knack for getting off to good starts, as the Jackets are 25-11 all-time in season-openers, having won five straight and eight of the last nine. They’ve parlayed that season-opening success into 10 consecutive winning season-opening weekends, going 24-6 in that span.
Freshman defensive specialist/libero Emily Becker will be experiencing her first collegiate matches but is confident she, and the underclassmen, fellow freshmen middle blocker Kodie Comby and right side hitter Simone Spencer, and sophomore middle Lauren Frerking, whose older sister, Katie, plays for Auburn women’s basketball, will be up to the task, having been brought up to speed during training camp.
“I don’t really know what to expect, I’ve never experienced a college game day but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to,” said Becker, who seconds Ackermann. “We talked about ‘Competir’ (the verb “To compete” in Spanish) as one of our season goals. That’s working with each other to get better. So it’s not me vs. London. It’s us working together to make each other better. I think it’s made me want to get better and I think it’s made her want to get better. We’re working with one another as opposed to against each other.”
The Jackets will work together to try to make history repeat on Friday. They tamed the Tigers (18-12, 10-8) last season, taking them out, 3-1, at O’Keefe, on Sept. 6 in the first match between the schools since 1996. GT is 5-7 (17-28 in matches) all time vs. Auburn but Tech had won four of the previous five match-ups prior to an 18-year series hiatus, which ended last year.
The Jackets hope the third time is a charm against Pacific (21-9, 12-4) as they’re 0-2 (2-6), although the schools haven’t met on the court since 2000 (a 3-2 loss at O’Keefe), while they hope to continue their success against Furman (10-14, 7-9), against whom they’re 9-7 (32-24), having won five straight matches (1996-98, 2008, 2011), dropping only two games in those five matches. Tech mastered Furman, 3-1, in the most recent matchup played in Clemson.
A good start this weekend will be important as the team follows with a bigtime early-season test the following weekend at the Kansas State Invitational, in Manhattan, Kansas, where they’ll meet Tennessee State, Michigan and host Kansas State, then comes home to defend its title in the Georgia Challenge, facing Georgia State, Kennesaw State and Georgia.
The competition is tough, tougher than last year, but Collier feels the team is better-equipped to handle it as it is ahead of last year.
“We’re definitely doing a lot better, just with the overall knowledge of the game. I think our team chemistry is a lot better, I think that we trust each other to do the things we need to do,” she said. “They have worked tremendously hard in the spring and in the summer. Our strength coach has done a great job with them over the offseason and they’re here stronger, healthier, faster. You put that with better volleyball knowledge. I think the trip to Brazil really helped us grow as players. Watching the Olympics has helped us grow as players. There are a lot of things that have happened that have helped us grow as far as volleyball IQ and physically. All of this is transferring over to the court. We’re definitely playing better volleyball.
“We’re playing volleyball at a higher level than we were last year, for sure,” she added. “We have more of a winner mentality. We’re confident with what we can do on the court. I think that we’re eager to put that against somebody else.”