Sept. 16, 2010
By Jon Cooper
Short of winning a championship there’s probably no better feeling in competitive sports than beating your rival.
That’s especially true in college, where there’s only a four-year window, and the results, for better or worse, become part of the school’s permanent record.
How one fares in rivalry games can define a participant’s career.
In that regard, a complete success would aptly define the careers of senior libero Jordan McCullers and setter Mary Ashley Tippins, who will finish their collegiate careers never having to discuss from a first-person perspective what it’s like to lose to arch-rival Georgia.
“I think that’s an incredible feat for two awesome young ladies to go 4-0 against the in-state rival,” said Head Coach Tonya Johnson. “That’s something that they can always look back on and share with their kids and their grandkids when their kids go to Georgia Tech or when their grandkids go to Georgia Tech and they start to understand the rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech.”
And what a compelling final chapter they’ll get to tell! That final chapter was written last Saturday night, when the Volleybeez rallied from 2-1 down to take a, five-set thriller (21-25, 25-14, 28-30, 25-22, 15-13) in front of a raucous crowd at the Ramsey Center in Athens.
“The UGA game is always such an emotional game for both sides,” said McCullers, who had 22 digs and six assists. “I think three out of the past four years have been either four- or five-set matches. That’s just a lot of emotion.”
“This is the match that we all look forward to at the beginning of the season. Those matches are always high-adrenaline-running, anxiety is on high,” added Tippens, who recorded her career-high fifth double-double with an impressive 60-assist-20-digs match. “Every year’s been so special, but definitely going to Athens this year and beating them at their home, is more awesome than anything.”
The rivalry has held some great memories. Tippins recalled her freshman season when she made her debut, stepping in for starter Allie Niekamp and, “was scared out of my mind that first set.”
But both agreed that last year’s match at O’Keefe Gymnasium, was probably the most memorable.
“Last year, just having the gym as packed as it was,” Tippins said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that full.”
McCullers’ finest Tech-UGA memory also centered on last season, and on Tippins’ dramatic ending.
“My best friend, `Mash,’ got the match-winning block in the fifth set,” she remembered. “It was such an intense and emotional match, and I couldn’t imagine it having a better ending. The team, our coaches, and the fans all went crazy. It was such an intense and emotional moment, and is one that I will always picture when I look back on my volleyball career.”
This year’s renewal certainly lived up to the hype.
After dropping the first set, Tech rolled through the second, and appeared on course to run off with the third, taking an 18-12 lead. But this war of 18-12 turned on a dime and UGA charged back to win, 30-28, in a set that saw nine ties and five lead changes.
“We didn’t really help ourselves there with that one,” said Tippins, with a laugh.
They didn’t help themselves but they did bounce back, taking the fourth game, which had 15 ties and five lead changes, then, finally putting the stubborn Bulldogs away in the fifth set.
“I knew going in that it was probably going to be a five-set match,” said Johnson, who is now 2-0 as a coach against UGA. “You’re talking about a much-improved Georgia team, you’re talking about our team where we’re still trying to figure things out and put the pieces together. Then, the rivalry itself adds another intense perspective. I knew neither one of us would go down easy.”
Once the match was over, there was time for McCullers and Tippins, teammates since they were 16 and best of friends (a story for down the road) to let the accomplishment sink in.
“We both knew that we hadn’t lost in the three previous years that we played them, but never once mentioned that before hand because it wasn’t about what the previous teams did,” said McCullers. “Afterwards, we definitely made it known. Everyone was very excited. Four years, that’s a good streak.”
“Beating them in general is such a pride thing,” added Tippins. “Every match you play you play for your school. But the whole rivalry just makes it so much better to beat Georgia.”
The win also was special for their families, as McCullers’ mother, Paula, played basketball at Georgia Tech (her dad went to Duke, a rivalry to be dealt with next weekend). It was no less special for Tippins, who is the only member of her family not to attend Auburn. She insisted, however, that her family enjoys a win over Georgia as much as anyone. Her dad helped her put things in perspective.
“My dad and I were talking on the bus ride back and he said not a lot of people can say they beat Georgia their four years playing here,” she said. “So it’s a special feeling. It’s that whole pride feeling, playing for our school, playing for this name, Georgia Tech. It’s a very cool feeling.”
“One of the first things you learn about Georgia Tech is the rivalry with Georgia,” said McCullers. “One thing that Tonya always harps on is that you don’t lose to in-state schools. Especially Georgia. So that was huge for us. It’s one of those accomplishments that sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
Having the rest of their life to enjoy the accomplishment will make it easier to put it aside this weekend when the team travels to Clemson, S.C., for the Clemson Classic and it’s ACC opener with the Tigers.
“This is what we train for, to play these ACC schools,” said McCullers. “We couldn’t be more excited about Clemson for the first one because that’s always one of the biggest rivalries every single year.”
“I think we’ve started with Clemson every year to start ACC play,” added Tippins. “Last year we beat them home and away and so we’d like to keep that going. It was a huge weekend this past weekend, but now it’s behind us and we have to focus on Clemson. It’s kind of the same as with Georgia, adrenaline is always on high, anxiety is on high. So it’s always an exciting match.”