The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
The first weekend of the season may be too soon to lose a season but it’s not too late to save one.
Georgia Tech Volleyball may have done the latter over the final two days of the Hyatt Regency Invitational at O’Keefe Gym.
In less than 24 hours, the Jackets, turned an 0-2 start -- matching their total number of losses all last season at O’Keefe -- into a 2-2 weekend split, bouncing back from losses to Auburn and Furman by topping No. 17 Michigan State then last year’s Big Sky regular-season and conference tournament champion North Dakota.
“We knew that this weekend was going to be a challenge,” said an enthusiastic but very hoarse head coach Michelle Collier following the win over North Dakota. “We had to deal with some injuries and some unforeseen stuff this preseason. I think the nerves kind of kept us from playing our best in those first two matches. But the great thing was every time that we stepped on the court we got better.
“We talked about the opportunities that we have with this schedule,” Collier added. “It’s a very tough schedule and we can either crumble and feel sorry for ourselves or we can step up and face the opposition and understand that they are opportunities to grow and take those moments as opportunities for us to get better. I think that’s the approach we went in against Michigan State. We went out very confident. We played very physical with them. That generated some confidence for the (North Dakota match) as well.”
After dropping their opener, 3-0 to Auburn then falling, 3-2, Saturday morning to Furman, the Jackets, who won two sets in its first two matches, lost only one set the rest of the weekend. They came back by concentrating on their preseason camp goals of precise passing and strong defense.
“There’s definitely a correlation there with being successful and passing well and playing scrappy defense, being a good blocking team,” Collier said. “One of the things we’ve done really well with serving these last two matches, we were really able to put our opponents in some uncomfortable situations and execute the game plan. I thought that we did a really good job of staying composed and resilient, consistent with our passing defense and then able to finish a great team like North Dakota. That’s great.”
“It’s really great to be able to go from playing Auburn and having zero blocks, no aces to beating Michigan State and having 12 blocks against them,” said senior outside hitter Ashley Askin, who on the weekend recorded 31 kills (third on the team), 45 digs (third), 3 service aces (tied for team lead), six block points, had a 12-kills, 18-digs double-double against Furman and hit .353 in the win over North Dakota. “We have so many new people, so many freshmen. Each game we’re focusing on getting better, making at least one touch better, making one less mistake and really learning to play with each other and grow together as a team.”
Suddenly the team that was potentially on the brink of a disastrous 0-4 opening weekend -- they hadn’t started 0-4 since 2004, interestingly a year the Jackets went 27-7, 16-0 in the ACC, won the ACC and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament -- not only was back off the ledge but on solid ground and revitalized.
The 16-woman roster, which is breaking in seven freshmen never panicked and came out ready to play the Spartans.
“We were talking at pregame meal and we’re like, ‘If we come out and beat Michigan State that erases everything else that happened. Because if we can do that, that says so much,’” recalled Askin. “That speaks volumes for our team to be able to pick ourselves up from those two losses and just go ball out and pick everything up.”
The upperclassmen stepped up as expected. Senior outside hitter and preseason all-ACC selection Gabriela Stavnetchei had a team-high 52 kills and 46 digs (tied for team lead), four games with double-figure kills and a pair of double-doubles -- 14 kills, 16 digs against Furman, 12 kills, 17 digs vs. Michigan State, senior middle blocker Sydney Wilson added 35 kills and 13 block points.
Sophomore middle blocker Kodie Comby (24 kills, 3 aces, 11 digs, 11 block points) also added to strength on attack and blocking.
But the Jackets got really superb play from freshmen especially right side Cori Clifton, who had 24 kills, 8 digs, 4 block points, and a .357 hitting game against North Dakota, setter Nicole Alford, who recorded 42 assists and 23 digs, including a 13-assist, 12-digs double-double against Michigan State, and libero/defensive specialist Sam Knapp, who had a team-high-tying 46 digs, 16 against North Dakota, and 3 aces.
“I was impressed with all of them,” said Collier. “Cori had a great weekend, Nicole’s coming back from an injury so she’s getting the timing with the hitters and making good decisions and really controlling the offense. Sam Knapp played a great weekend for us at the libero position. A lot of these kids are playing very big roles. Seeing their poise and their calm and how much they’re helping the team is exciting.”
Askin isn’t surprised by team’s ability to pull itself together. She already feels a very strong chemistry.
“I think the biggest difference between this year and last year is our team chemistry and just knowing that the person next to you genuinely believes in you and loves you and has confidence in you,” she said. “What we’ve been trying to do with these freshmen is build their confidence up and let them know, ‘Hey, you’re an awesome player and you deserve to be at Tech. You’re here for a reason and we’re just going to take that talent and grow it.’ It’s like if you make a mistake, you know the person next to you wants you to get better and is going to push you but she also believes in you. She’s not going to hold anything against you. We’re all here; we all want each other to get better. We want to be the best team that we can and it takes all of us. It’s not about seniors and freshmen and whatever else. It’s about the team. It’s going to take every single one of us.”
This weekend the rugged schedule gets even more rugged. The Jackets travel across the country to San Diego to take on the host No. 17 University of San Diego Toreros (2-1), then, the following day, meet No. 4 Texas, the nation’s top-ranked team last week (1-1), and conclude with a match against Villanova (3-0), which last weekend beat ACC rival Virginia.
The Jackets are excited for the challenge and to continue building on last week.
“I’ve never been out to California, I don’t think half of us have so it’s going to be really cool,” said Askin. “It’s going to be a neat experience to have together and to play some really good volleyball against some top teams.
“I think this was a really great tournament. We had some really great teams,” she added. “To be able to build on that and set the standard, this is how we need to play and just keep going up from there.”
“It was a long weekend for the girls. It took a lot of them mentally and physically,” said Collier. “How we responded, it’s exciting. It shows you how much potential this group has.”