July 31, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech Volleyball Coach Tonya Johnson believes youth should be served…and set, and spiked, and dug.
As the Yellow Jackets coaches prepare for the start of next Monday’s organized workouts, the team itself has been breaking in a talented quartet of freshmen — outside hitters Zoey Morton and Courtney Felinski, middle blocker Ashtaan Horton and setter Alexandra (Ali) Santi — in informal group workouts and lifting sessions. The foursome will compete for playing time and push a young (eight underclassmen) and hungry squad seeking to improve on last season’s 11-9 record in ACC play, which tied for fifth with Wake Forest, and an 18-14 overall ledger.
Morton, Felinski, Horton and Santi were the fruits of a recruiting push by Johnson and her staff that successfully netted talent in and out of state.
The biggest local signing was Morton, the 2010 AAA State Volleyball Player of the Year, and a big reason for Woodward Academy’s run of three consecutive state championships (she even nailed the championship point in the ’10 State Championships).
The Atlanta native found happiness her own backyard, but only after seriously contemplating heading out of state.
“I really wanted the Division I experience, not in Ivy League. Good volleyball and good academics. Georgia Tech had both of those, so it was perfect,” she said. “At first I didn’t want to go in-state. I wanted to go far away, a new experience and such but I really like it here. It’s close to my family but I’m not seeing them all the time.”
The 5-10 hitter has found that the biggest challenge thus far has been adjusting mentally to the grind that is college.
“The mentality of getting through things, to have workouts every day and sometimes it’s tough to wake up in the morning and just go through what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “But you just have to have that mentality that it’s going to make me better. Before, with club, it was more relaxed, you had workouts but it wasn’t as difficult. In college they’re much more difficult. You just have to have the right mentality when you’re going into it every day.
“One of the things I’m most excited about is improving and getting to the next level,” she added. “My biggest goal is seeing some playing time. That would be good.”
Felinski is also looking to earn some playing time on the outside — no small feat, considering Tech’s returning OH’s are co-captains junior Monique Mead, who played over the summer for the U.S. A2 Team, and senior Bailey Hunter, who was invited to try out for that team.
But she will stand tall in the face of competition. She’s 6-2 and was a powerful force for Magnolia High School, in Magnolia, Texas, leading the school to the final four in the state championships in 2008. It was the school’s first state tournament appearance in 11 years. The next year, she led the team to the quarterfinals.
Felinski also starred with the Texas Tornadoes club team, where Johnson, then an assistant coach at the University of Texas, discovered her.
Johnson had little trouble selling Georgia Tech.
“I fell in love with the school, and the team and campus as soon as I got here,” recalled Felinski, who admitted she also looked at other ACC schools. “I committed at the end of my unofficial visit because I just couldn’t wait. My parents were both like, ‘Just do it. We know you’re going to do it eventually, anyway.’ I was just in love with the school.”
Courtney is getting accustomed to being away from home and is looking forward to the challenge of playing ACC volleyball. She credits Hunter with helping fuel her drive.
“Bailey has been very encouraging, telling us that we have a good chance to play, ” she said. “Hearing that just kind of blew my mind because I know a lot of girls as freshmen just sit the bench all year. I don’t want to do that. I’m going to work as hard as I can to try to get some playing time.”
While Johnson sought out Felinski, middle blocker Ashtaan Horton, also a Lone Star Stater, actually sought out Johnson.
“I knew Tonya because I used to play at PAB, a club in Texas. They have a college coach camp,” Horton recalled. “That was my first time meeting her and I liked her a lot. Once I found out she left Texas to become the head coach at Georgia Tech, I got interested in [Tech] because I liked her so much. That was how I got here.”
A three-year starter at Cedar Hill High School in Cedar Hill, Texas, Horton was All-District in 2008 and 2009.
Like the other freshmen who have taken summer classes, she has quickly learned the challenge of adjusting to college life.
“It’s a lot of hard work and dedication and a lot of time management,” she said. “You have to make sure you’re good at that, because if not, you won’t do too good in class or you’ll be tired because you stayed up too late.”
One advantage Horton has is being adjusted to the city of Atlanta.
“I came here when I was younger because my cousin was coming to visit some of the colleges around here,” she recalled. “I loved it then so it made it even easier for me to come here for college. Even though it’s far away from home I love the city so much and it’s a lot of fun.”
Probably no one has come from farther from home than Santi, who calls Honolulu home.
“I visited some schools and, honestly, I wasn’t really expecting to go to college very far from home,” she said. “But when I went on my visit to Tech and from the moment I got on campus I knew it was where I needed to go. The girls are great, I love the coaching staff, the school, it’s an awesome education academically. I just decided it was the right place for me.”
Setter is the right place on the court for Santi, who led Punahou High School to three straight state championship appearances and led her club team Imi Ike to back-to-back league championships.
She hopes to have similar success in leading Tech’s attack.
“It’s been awesome so far,” she said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of highs and lows. The workouts have definitely been tough and it’s been hard to juggle it with school, but at the end of the every day you’re so proud of yourself that you made it through and you have a new mindset on what’s going on. It’s just great to be around the girls and it’s been a great experience so far.”
She knows she has big shoes to fill in trying to replace Mary Ashley Tippins, but is ready to settle it on the court and let the best setter win.
“I know that it’s going to be a dogfight each and every day,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, no position is set in stone and whoever is playing better, whoever passes better that week is the one who is going to play. I’m just going to work my butt off and see what happens. That’s kind of my plan.”
It’s a plan that’s catching on with the freshmen.
We’ll see how well that plan works soon enough.