Nov. 2, 2016
In every successful season there are moments — deciding moments, defining moments, historic moments.
Georgia Tech volleyball is having one of those seasons, lots of those moments and head coach Michelle Collier is all about chronicling them. Creating them has become a rallying point for the team.
“Our second leg of the schedule is definitely very challenging. We’re taking one match at a time,” said Collier, whose team brings a 19-5 record and a 10-2 mark in ACC play into the weekend. “Every time that we approach that match we talk about creating moments and creating opportunities.”
It’s an approach that not only has the Jackets riding a nine-match winning streak — the longest since the 2006 team last ran off nine straight wins, also in ACC play — heading into Friday night’s meeting with Virginia Tech (8-15, 3-9), but has them in possession of third place in the ACC. Tech is tied with Duke but owns the tiebreaker after one of those moments, the first win in Durham in 12 years two weeks ago.
Collier, in her third season at the helm, proudly credits her players.
“This group has bought into the things that I brought in with my staff, the culture and how we want to play the game of volleyball, what the game of volleyball is about and what this experience should be about,” she said. “I think they’re embracing that and responding and playing the game at a level that they weren’t.”
The Yellow Jackets knew they had experience and a strong base coming into the season, with their five returning seniors, sisters Teegan and Annika Van Gunst at outside and right side hitter, Rebecca Martin at setter, London Ackermann at Libero/defensive specialist, and Lauren Pitz at middle blocker.
“We have five seniors in this group and they’re really driven to leave a legacy here,” Collier said.
The quintet has not disappointed.
Teegan, a First-Team All-ACC, AVCA All-Region and Honorable Mention All-America performer last season, is second in the ACC in kills (4.24 per set) and points (4.76/set) and recorded her 1,000th dig and 1,000th kill this season.
Annika is on the verge of reaching 1,000 digs and 1,000 kills herself – she already has 1,000 digs. Ackermann is third in the conference in digs (4.64/set) and took over the top spot in school history, passing Jenn Beemsterboer (1987-90).
Martin ranks ninth in the ACC in helpers (8.64/set) and has risen to sixth in school history (3,223), and Lauren Pitz is ninth in the ACC in blocks (1.14/set).
But the Jackets have shown they are deeper than just the five seniors. Junior OH Gabriela Stavnetchei ranks second behind Teegan in kills (230), kills per set (2.71) and total attack points (645) while junior MB Sydney Wilson leads the team in blocks (76, 15 solo) and, with 51 career solo rejections, is only four away from breaking into Georgia Tech’s all-time top 10.
“Gabriela and Sydney have had a tremendous impact in this group,” said Collier. “They’ve raised their game to the next level. Our seniors are very strong but I think that everybody around them has really pushed this group up. We have a lot of depth. We have a freshman, (MB Kodie Comby) that’s coming in and playing some significant time and she’s coming in at tough moments and executing. We have people off the bench that are coming in in different positions at different times and they have been able to get us out of some situations and win. So it’s definitely the strength of the group that has been the difference this year.”
And what a difference. The Jackets rank in the top five in EVERY team category in the ACC, leading the league in opponent hitting percentage (.162) and ranking second in assists (13.10), kills (13.85) and digs (16.45).
“The fact that we are top five in every statistical category says a lot,” said Collier. “If you’d looked at our stats, where we stood two seasons ago, we were good at one thing and everything else was towards the end of the ACC. So being able to do all parts of the game at a high level shows the great progress that we have made.”
That progress has shown up on the court with the team’s cohesion and attention to detail in doing the little things. Perhaps most important to Collier is the group’s passion in playing the game the right way — the way they do in her native Brazil — and an appreciation for their opportunity to do so.
“When you come from Brazil and you look at facilities and you look at the places that we played, all those things, it’s a special thing that the United States has with college athletics,” she said. “One of the biggest things with me and our culture is my players need to understand that, they need to be appreciative of that. We had an opportunity to go to Brazil this summer and they were able to see exactly what we were talking about. That was a huge turning point for us as a team in just how we approach this experience, just how appreciative we are for the opportunity to play the game, to play the game at this institution and to be able to do it at a very high level.
“The other thing was we tried to adapt at training as much as possible. We try to make our players all-around players, make them very comfortable with the game,” she added. “In the first couple of years we would put international volleyball on the TV and in the summer we would watch the World Championships. I said, ‘Pick a player, learn about the sport, find out who is out there that you like and their style of play. Get to know the sport of volleyball a little more than what we’re doing here.’ It’s a sport that generates a lot of passion for a lot of people and it’s a fun sport to watch. I think the more our players learned about it they saw high-level players making mistakes and making mistakes in situations that they make mistakes in, they started understanding the game a little bit better and started to learn how to be better playing the game.”
Understanding the game has allowed them to learn from mistakes.
In 2015, Tech played seven five-set matches, going 3-4, but losing three of their last four. This year, Tech has won three of its four five-setters and taken three straight. They’ve also dispatched of opponents quickly, having won in the minimum three sets 11 times. That’s one more than all of last season, the most in the Collier Era, and the most since earning 15 sweeps in 2012.
It’s all about knowing how to win.
“Winning is addictive,” said Collier, who crafted a 40-28 record in two seasons at Jacksonville University, including a 30-4 season her second year, winning the Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament championships and getting the Dolphins to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years. “Once you learn how to win it’s a feeling that kind of just takes over you and you want to do more and more and you want to practice more and more and you want to get better. I think that what has happened this year is this team has learned how to win. They come into practice every day ready to get better. They’re learning how to play the game at a higher level every day and what the expectations are at this level to be successful. We’re staying very confident with what we can do and we’re staying on task. We’re on a mission.”
That mission continues on Friday against the Hokies then Sunday against Pittsburgh, one of only two ACC teams to beat them, and a confident team that upended first-place North Carolina in a tense five-setter on Sunday. That loss brought the Tar Heels back to the pack a step and created an opportunity for the conference crown. The Jackets would like to take advantage of that opportunity.
Just add it to their list of goals.
“We are making it to go to the NCAA Tournament as our goal,” she said. “At the beginning of the season our goal was to have more than 20 wins, finish with a top-50 RPI — we’re at 48 right now and we have 19 wins. With UNC’s loss last weekend, we had a little group chat and said, ‘Hey, this opens up even bigger aspirations and possibilities now.’ So I think we’re re-focusing our goals a little bit, making those goals bigger and bigger as we go.”