Sept. 3, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There’s nothing better than owning bragging rights over your rival.
The opportunity to hold that upper hand for 364 days means everything. Just ask the players, regardless of the sport, of Georgia Tech and Georgia.
Bragging rights will be at stake this weekend when Georgia Tech Volleyball (3-1), Georgia Southern (2-0) and Mercer (1-2) all converge on the Ramsey Center in Athens to take on host, Georgia (3-0), in the Georgia Challenge.
“I think this is a really good tournament. Everybody wants to have that bragging right of being best in the state,” said Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Michelle Collier. “I think every team has a possibility of beating any team this weekend. Every school is getting better. I think all the teams are playing at a very good level so there is not going to be an easy match.
“It’s cool for the state of Georgia to be able to create that kind of environment and bring in a lot of top teams from the state to battle out and make sure that we’re exposing more young players to the game of volleyball here so it’s an exciting opportunity,” she added.
The opportunity is extra exciting for the Jackets, who head East toward Athens following a satisfying 3-1 opening weekend in the GT Courtyard by Marriott Atlanta Midtown Invite, sweeping Siena, UT-Martin and The Citadel while dropping a five-setter to Coastal Carolina. Junior outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst had a superb tournament, earning a place on the All-Tournament team after putting down 48 kills, including a 22-kill, 13-dig double-double in the five-set loss to the Chanticleers. Annika Van Gunst also played well, recording a 13-13 double-double in the Coastal match and was solid all weekend.
Middle blocker Sydney Wilson also had a big weekend, nailing a career-high 11 kills against UT-Martin and finishing the weekend with a team-high 16 blocks. London Ackermann made 61 digs (4.36 per set, second in the ACC) and recorded a career-best five aces against the Skyhawks, while setter Rebecca Martin averaged 8.69 assists per set (eighth in the conference).
Up and down the lineup there were contributions. That pleased Collier.
“It’s hard to point out one or two people,” said Collier. “It was a collective effort and everybody contributed in their time on the court.
“I liked the way we competed, I liked the way the team responded to the different lineups and the different things we did this weekend,” she added. “We were definitely very consistent with our offense. Offensively and defensively we had some very good numbers. So it was good to see us come out at home and be able to play at that level and sustain that level of volleyball for four matches and be able to move people around and work with different lineups and different players on the court.”
Even the two sets the Jackets lost were loaded with positives.
“I was very proud of the way we put ourselves back in the game,” said Collier. “We started out really well and then we lost a little bit of consistency on our serves and passing so we were unable to execute as well offensively as they were executing offensively. We kind of lost ourselves in those two games there but we showed a lot of resilience and fought back in the fourth game and we were able to put ourselves in the position to win the match again. We know that we could have been better in that fifth game but I’m proud of how we got to that fifth game and how we put ourselves in a position to win the match again after losing the other two games. That was really good to see. The next opportunity we have to play a fifth game we’ll put a little more pressure on our opponents and learn from what we did there.”
The Jackets will learn more about their ability to deal with adversity, beginning Thursday when they take the floor on against Mercer (the match begins at 4 p.m.), as they won’t have the luxury of the O’Keefe Gym crowd. If anything, the crowd may be especially hostile against them.
Collier believes that this year’s version of the Yellow Jackets will be better prepared to handle such hostility than last year’s which struggled on the road, going 2-10.
“I think we were pretty consistent last weekend so they have to feel good about the level that they can play at, what we can do on the court and be a little more confident with bringing that kind of mentality wherever we go, no matter who we face,” she said. “I think we’re mentally stronger in that side of the game. We’re definitely a more mature team and hopefully that will show results on the road as well.”
The four-team tournament concludes on Friday, when Georgia Tech faces Georgia Southern at 10 a.m. then squares off with the host at 7 p.m. in the tournament finale.
History points to this being the main event, as the Yellow Jackets are 28-1 all-time against Mercer, having won 16 straight matches since losing in 1982. In that span the Jackets have recorded 14 sweeps and have dropped a total of three games. Tech has run similarly over Georgia Southern, grounding the Eagles all six times they’ve met, dropping only two sets — although it should be pointed out the teams have not met since 1992.
Georgia holds the edge on Tech, 22-14, but the Jackets won 14 of the last 15 before falling last season in a tight 3-1 match at O’Keefe.
Collier is eager to avenge the loss and is pumped up for her first visit to Athens. She’d like to join the pantheon of current Jackets coaches including football’s Paul Johnson, men’s basketball’s Brian Gregory and baseball’s Danny Hall, who came out victorious in their first trip to Athens. But the UGA match is not her or her team’s sole focus.
“I think all three matches are just as important,” she said. “They’re important parts of the road that we’re following with where we want to get to this season. We’re definitely ready for it and looking forward to it but we have two really good opponents before we get to Georgia that we really need to focus on, then get ready for Friday night.”