The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
Ever since the 2016 season ended, Georgia Tech volleyball has been asking itself one question: "What's next?"
A fair question, as 2016 saw the Yellow Jackets go 24-8 (15-5 in ACC play), the program's best season and conference season since 2009, but also saw five key seniors graduate.
The time has come for some answers, starting Friday night at O'Keefe Gym and over the next three days, Georgia Tech hosts Auburn (Friday at 6 p.m.), Furman (Saturday at 10 a.m.), No. 17 Michigan State (Saturday at 8 p.m.) and North Dakota State (Sunday at 4 p.m.) in the annual Hyatt Regency Invitational. (Tickets are available on a per-day basis, and there's free admission to the Saturday morning session, Georgia Tech-Furman at 10 a.m. followed by Michigan State-Auburn at noon).
"I'm excited to get a better reality of what all this looks like. We're definitely not at our peak and where we need to be but it was a great camp," said head coach Michelle Collier, who is 55-40 in three seasons, having increased her win totals each year (13, 18, 24) and last year just missed getting Tech back to the NCAA Tournament. "I think that we made some really good progress individually and as a group and it will be exciting to be able to face someone else on the other side."
That someone else consists of four very good teams. Auburn and Furman both finished below .500 last season, including losses to the Jackets in last year's season-opening War Eagle Invite in Auburn, but the Tigers returns four starters and its libero while the Paladins returns nine players from last season. The Spartans won 25 games, advanced one round in the NCAAs and is in the top 25 (17th in the AVCA Coaches poll), and the Fighting Hawks won 26 games, the Big Sky regular-season and conference championships and also appeared in the NCAAs.
"We're playing teams that are all very capable of being in the NCAA tournament at the end of the year and I think that with the season we had last year and how close we were, this schedule dictates the direction that this program is going. These teams are going to help get us there," said Collier. "In order to be the best we have to play the best and we're definitely putting ourselves out there. Even with this young team, we're not backing down from the competition."
While the Jackets have had success against all four teams -- they've beaten Auburn two straight times and six of the last seven times they've met, have beaten Furman six straight times, losing only two games in that run, they're 2-0 all-time vs. Michigan State although the schools haven't met since 2003 (Tech and North Dakota will meet for the first time) -- they know that's in the past and won't matter once they hit the floor of O'Keefe.
"It's a different year, different players. What happened last year happened last year. We have to focus on now," said senior outside hitter and preseason All-ACC selection Gabriela Stavnetchei. "We have different people here, they have different people, they might be playing a different system so what happened happened. We're focusing on right now and we'll see what's going to happen."
"Teams change every year. I know our team is very different," said senior setter Gabby Benda. "Our expectations are high for ourselves but we're never going to overlook an opponent. I think all the teams we're going to play this weekend are going to be challenging and help us grow. So we're excited."
Stavnetchei and Benda are among a group of six upperclassmen, including seniors Ashley Askin, Sydney Wilson, and juniors Lauren Frerking and Specialist Coral Kazaroff, a transfer from Virginia, that will be counted on to lead and help a talented group of seven freshmen get up to speed.
The youngsters will need to rise to the occasion pretty much right away.
"We've got some good leadership with our seniors but our freshmen are going to have to understand a little bit about the intensity and just how hard it is to play at this level," said Collier. "There's no better team than Auburn. That team plays with energy, they play with intensity, they pressure you. I think that's a great first match for us because if we can match their intensity on the court I think we can take our game to the next level. So it's going to be a really great challenge for us."
Collier sees the Jackets' opposition as a roadmap for where the program needs to go.
"(Auburn and Furman) are a little bit more in the situation we were last year, where we had returners and we had a team that had been playing together for a long time. That's what this Auburn team has now. Furman, they return a lot of players from last year as well, some key players for them. They were a very young team last year," she said. "Michigan State is ranked in the top 25 and they play in the Big Ten, so they know what high-level volleyball is. North Dakota, too, they won the Big Sky last year, they were 26-10, they went to the Tournament. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us."
While graduation gave Tech had no choice but to have a different look, that look promises to be very entertaining.
"This year we're trying to speed up the offense a little bit more, me and (freshman setter Nicole Alford) both have faster tempo hands, we're both pretty athletic," said Benda. "So we're excited to put that together with the new hitters. We have a lot of new hitters this year, we have two lefties on the right side who are going to do a lot for us and they're big kids. We have a lot more height than we've ever had in the past few years. I, personally, like bigger hitters so I'm excited to see what that looks like."
So is Collier.
"Physically, we're definitely bigger but where we're going to have to match our previous squads is the ball-control," she said. "So our passing and our defense are going to have to match what we have been able to do in the past three years in order for that height to start to be an advantage. Because if you go up in height and so our blocking is better or attacking at a higher point on the net but if we're not passing as well or we're not digging as well then we're getting points on one side but losing points on the other side. So in order for this program to continue to go where it needs to go and where it's going, as we increase the physicality of our players on the court, we need to continue to do the basics and the fundamentals at a very high level. We know that we need to make sure that we do that in order to maximize the opportunity that we have."
The Jackets will look to maximize the advantage of hosting the Hyatt. Since 2006 they've never had as much as a .500 record in this season-opening event (they're 27-6 in that span). At O'Keefe, the Jackets haven't had a losing season since 1999, were 11-2 last year -- the Jackets second double-figure win season since 2009 and the fewest losses for Tech in a home slate since 2004.
"There is no place like O'Keefe," said Collier. "Nowhere else that we play will we feel the energy and the environment that we feel when we're playing in our home court. So I know that we're excited to be able to face such great teams on our home court because we know how hard it is for teams to beat us here and it's a tradition we want to continue."
"It's awesome. The band and the fans just make the environment so amazing," said Benda. "O'Keefe is probably one of the strongest home court advantages in the country. I've played in a lot of different gyms. There's nothing like O'Keefe. We have a new floor, the Taraflex court. I love it. It's really good for your body and I think it's going to help us have an even bigger advantage this year."
The Jackets hope that advantage begins Friday night.
"I'm ready to have a really good season," said Stavnetchei. "You get a little bit nervous until you get that first ball, then the nerves go away. It's definitely exciting and you want to go out there. We've been working hard the entire spring and summer and preseason. I'm ready to play."
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There's a lot more for fans attending matches this weekend than just great volleyball. Friday is Beach Day. Fans coming out donning beach attire will receive a pair of Georgia Tech sunglasses. On Saturday evening, fans attending the match will receive a GT fidget spinner, while Sunday is "Sundae Funday," with free sundaes (while supplies last).