Nov. 19, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There are going to be a lot of tears on Sunday at O’Keefe Gym when Georgia Tech volleyball concludes the home portion of its 2016 schedule and the fans say goodbye to the five-member senior class — libero/defensive specialist London Ackermann, setter Rebecca Martin, middle blocker Lauren Pitz, right side hitter Annika Van Gunst and outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst — as only they can.
It’s a special group. One that came in as freshmen under then-head coach Tonya Johnson, stayed together following a coaching change after their freshman season and prepares to leave under head coach Michelle Collier, having earned the program’s first 20-win season since 2009 and seeking the first NCAA Tournament berth and highest ACC finish since finishing third, also in 2009.
No one is more grateful than Collier and her staff.
“They definitely believed in us and we invested in them so I think it was a mutual respect that we had for one another,” she said. “I love them. They have made me a better coach from day one. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ll forever remember them and I’ll miss having them around, for sure.
“There was always a goal of them when they got recruited to come into Georgia Tech was be able to be program-changers and leave a legacy in this program and I think they’ve done just that,” she added. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of leaders. I was very blessed to have them here and be able to have them help me rebuild this place and bring it to a place that people can be proud of.”
Sunday is the ending the players and coaches knew was coming yet it still snuck up on them.
“It’s a weird feeling for sure, because toward the end of the last three seasons you’re like, ‘Well, I’ve got another round,’” said Annika Van Gunst. “But reality really sets in toward the end of this season. You’re like, ‘This is the end of my college athletics.’ So, it’s a little sad but it’s also exciting to see where we are and the opportunity to hopefully play postseason. It’s a little bittersweet. To leave this program in a better position is something that everyone in our class strived for.”
That striving and dedication has paid off. Georgia Tech began play Friday fourth in the ACC (12-4, 21-7 overall), but only one game out of third, two out of second and three out of first. Everything is in play as is an NCAA Tournament bid, something they’re hungry for.
“[Returning to the NCAA Tournament] would mean a lot,” said Teegan Van Gunst. “It would be a big accomplishment and a step in the right direction for this program, hopefully to continue for years to come. It would get the morale and the excitement around Georgia Tech volleyball back to where it used to be in the early 2000s. We still have things that we want to do this season and places that we want to go so there’s still lots of work to do but our class is having fun.”
Sunday will be fun as well as emotional, but Collier feels what’s at stake and Notre Dame (19-9, 10-6) on the other side of the net, will counter the emotion some.
“If I look back to my Senior Day there were a lot of tears before the match but once you start playing you’re really just in the moment and you forget about everything else and try to do your best,” she said. “An opponent like Notre Dame can be a good opportunity for us to beat a good team, that’s going to be more than enough motivation to get out there and be focused on them.”
The players are focused on the task at hand.
“Our first priority for the game Sunday is to win because we know how big it is and how important it is for our postseason run,” said Annika. ”So [our]focus is going to be on that and what we need to do on our side to win the game.”
“It really keeps the hope alive that you want to keep fighting,” said Pitz. “It really makes every second on the court more important. Something that’s been different than past years is that we have a goal this late in the season; we still have a chance to make the tournament. That keeps us focused every day and working hard, which is cool.”
It’s the same focus that made Friday night’s match against Louisville so important. Louisville is the hometown of both Ackermann and junior OH Ashley Askin. Getting it done for their teammates mattered in the team’s effort, a satisfying four-set win/despite a hard-fought third-set loss.
“It did,” said Annika. “We’d want to win for them whether we’re on the road or at home. It’s a big team for them, they grew up playing against people on that team and they know that team well.”
Setting the example of finishing strong is the final lesson the seniors want to teach the juniors and underclassmen, who will take the reins next year. They’ve already been exemplary in showing how to handle expectations.
“We’ve done a really good job this season trying to keep that next ball or forward focus,” said Martin, who began the weekend with 3,358 career assists, sixth in school history and 75 away from passing Margaret Gales (1986-89) for fifth. “We’re continuously setting goals and continuously striving for better, even at the ‘tail end of our season.’ I think it’s very telling of how high our expectations are, how high our expectations are for ourselves and how high expectations are from our coaches for us.
“Even when we came in as freshmen and the seniors were talking about their legacy we’ve always been trying to lay the groundwork for the rest of our teammates to be successful, to help create a legacy,” she added. “Whether it’s off the court, on the court, I just want to make sure all of the girls coming into Tech feel welcome and they feel that they are well-prepared to take on the challenges that we have expected for them.”
“My freshman year we had a large senior class and we know that they were very sad about how that ended,” recalled Ackermann, who adds to her school-career digs record in every match. “Starting from our freshman year we knew that that wasn’t something we wanted to happen again. So each year we put in extra effort to make sure that once we’ve gotten to this point, as seniors, that that won’t happen and that we can make a difference for our entire team and the entire program.
“It’s satisfying to see us grow as a team and grow as individuals and be able to create this culture, where we’re starting to become used to winning and winning is a natural thing,” she added. “It’s awesome to see us play together as a team and be in the situation that we’re in. I am definitely proud of the accomplishments we’ve already made and what we’ll do in the future.”
We is the key word. Personal accolades can wait.
“Yeah, through my years here I’ve been a leader in statistical categories but I haven’t thought about where I sit in the record books and all that,” said Teegan, who last year became the first Jacket to be a First-Team All-ACC selection since Monique Mead in 2012 and who began the weekend with 1,382 kills, 71 from cracking the top 10 in school history. “I think that will be for one day after retirement. Honestly, I feel like there is so much more I could do and so much better that I could get. It’s super-special to play here and I’ll definitely miss the team aspect of it — the Georgia Tech family that’s been created the past four years that we’ve been here.”
Teegan credits Collier and her staff for setting that tone.
“Over the past three years, Michelle has made a huge impact on this program and where she wants to see it go and the steps she’s made in getting us to that point,” she said. “So huge credit to her and the assistant coaches. Also teammates buying into what she’s brought into the gym and the culture that we’ve kind of been creating these last couple of years. It’s definitely satisfying to see it kind of come to fruition and the results of our hard work over the past couple of years. We’re playing some good volleyball. So it’s super-exciting.”
Super-exciting also will describe O’Keefe beginning at 1 p.m. on Sunday. That’s something the players will miss.
“Every time I step on the court, every time the National Anthem plays, I sit there, especially at O’Keefe, I look around and I try to take that moment in,” said Ackermann. “Knowing that this will be the last time will be very sentimental and sad but also exciting that I was able to be a part of something that makes me feel that way.”
“I’m going to miss the loudness of this gym and just how crazy the fans are,” said Pitz. “Just the moments where you’re on the bench and the coaches are trying to talk to you and you can’t hear because the band is playing so loud. There is just something so amazing about the Tech volleyball culture here and how bought-in the fans are. That’s really cool. Every moment at the end of every game that we’ve won at O’Keefe this season I’ve liked to close my eyes and hear it all and just take it in and know that ‘This may be the last time but I’ll always remember that feeling of winning at O’Keefe.’”
Sunday the Jackets will try to enjoy that feeling one more time.