Part of what makes college athletics careers so unique is that they are finite.
At some point, there will be that last match. For Georgia Tech volleyball’s senior class -- outside hitters Gabriela Stavnetchei and Ashley Askin, middle blocker Sydney Wilson and setter Gabby Benda -- that day has come. Their final ride begins tonight at 1 p.m., when the Yellow Jackets host Florida State at O’Keefe Gym.
“We’re fortunate enough to play our last game of our collegiate regular season career at home,” said Wilson. “So I want to play it like it’s my last game. Just go out with a bang.”
It's certainly been quite a journey.
Four years ago, Wilson, a Fayetteville, Ga., native, was the lone local product to arrive at Tech, joined by Stavnetchei, from Curitiba, Brazil, and Askin, from Louisville, Kentucky, and the daughter of a pair of Notre Dame alumni. Benda, a Raleigh, N.C., native, would transfer a year later from Marquette.
They would transform from girls that shared a passion for volleyball to sisters, dedicated to making each other and everyone around them better while donning the White and Gold.
“This class has been with me since my first season here and we’ve been through a lot together,” said Head Coach Michelle Collier, who inherited this class, the last recruited by her predecessor, Tonya Johnson. “They’re all really good with people and they did a good job getting along with everybody, kind of making sure that people around them felt heard and supported and comfortable.”
The charm of this class was that all four of them were as unique as their home.
“Their personalities are all very different,” Collier said. “You have Gabby Benda who’s always very fiery, very energetic on the court, you have Ashley, who’s always bringing a smile and some energy to what she’s doing. She’s got a little more power into her swing and the way that she plays. Then you have Gabi (Stavnetchei), who is just naturally so gifted with what she does physically and she jumps so easily off the ground. She moves really easily. She’s somebody that by looking at just her frame, you don’t understand the strength that she has. Then you have Syd, who’s just so consistent with her personality and what she brings to the group. She doesn’t have too many highs and lows.
“It’s really cool. I have learned something from all of them and they have definitely made me a better coach and a better person,” she added. “There are a lot of special qualities and unique qualities that they have that will definitely be missed. All I can say is I’m very grateful and thankful for them and for what I have learned with them as people and volleyball players. I hope that they leave here with lots of learning for the rest of their lives.”
The entire group benefitted from each other as they’ve spent most of their time at Tech as roommates.
“Ashley, Syd and I started together so we’ve been living together since day one so we got really close,” said Stavnetchei, a preseason all-ACC selection, who’s spent her entire season leading the ACC in kills and among the leaders in the ACC in kills per set and attack points. “Benda got here after a year and she also got close to all of us. We’re just a really close group -- not just the seniors but everybody. Because we’ve been here for so long and we lived through everything together, we went through the same things, we’re a really, really close class.”
“I showed up my sophomore year and started living with them right away. Ashley, Sydney and Gabi were all very welcoming,” said Benda, who ranks in the top 10 in the conference in assists and assists per set. “Those three girls really made my time special here. They play with the same kind of passion and intensity and we all wanted the same things as far as taking this program to new heights. I really couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to be around on and off the court.
“I think all of our personalities are very different but we all get along really well,” she added. ”We clicked right away. This group chemistry-wise was very tight. I think that’s what allowed us to do some things that we weren’t able to last year even with this group of girls.”
Things like beating a top-25 team. That happened on Aug. 26, in a night matchup at O’Keefe. The Jackets, smarting from a surprising 3-2 loss to Furman earlier in the day and staring down the prospects of an 0-3 start took the floor against No. 17 Michigan State in the finale of the Hyatt Regency Invitational.
The seniors wouldn’t let it happen. Stavnetchei put up a 12-kills, 17-digs double-double, her second of the season and 11th of her career, and Askin (8 kills, 10 digs), Wilson (8 kills, 8 block points) and Benda (a team-high 23 assists, 8 digs) just missed getting double-doubles, as the Jackets upended the Spartans, 3-1. It was Tech’s first win over a top-25 team in four years, and even was Collier’s first as a coach. 17th-ranked MSU was the third-highest opponent ever knocked off by the Jackets and was the 10th time a top-25 opponent fell at O’Keefe.
“Being able to take down a top-25 team with such a new team and because the chemistry is so strong with this group, beating a team like that with some of your best friends is just an amazing feeling,” Benda said. “I’m really proud of the freshmen that came in and worked hard right away. That probably was the best feeling, beating Michigan State.”
“This year beating Michigan State here was pretty awesome,” said Stavnetchei, who ranked the win as her favorite O’Keefe memory. “It was just an amazing feeling beating a team ranked 17th. That was a really good memory.”
The conquest of the Spartans made an impression on each of the seniors but for some, the most memorable O’Keefe moment was reserved for “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.”
“Probably playing Georgia at home,” said Wilson, who’ll lead the Jackets in blocked shots, assisted blocks and total blocks all four years and this season ranked among conference leaders in blocks per set and hitting percentage. “Every time we’ve played UGA it’s been a great atmosphere. So that would definitely be my best memory.”
“My favorite O’Keefe memory probably would have been between that Michigan State match and last year when we played Georgia here,” said Benda, of the 3-0 sweep. “We had a sold-out crowd and the energy in the gym was just super-exciting. Of course, Georgia being our rival, everyone was really excited to play that match.”
Askin, who’ll proudly leave Tech having never lost to Notre Dame -- not only the alma mater of both her parents, but against whom she also set career-highs for kills (17 this year) and digs (27 in 2015) -- looked back more fondly on a different ACC win.
“I would have to say that was this year against UNC,” she said. “I was going to say Michigan State but I think UNC was probably my favorite just because of how close and how crazy that match was. It was so intense and I think of everyone running onto the court afterwards, everyone just hugging each other and cheering and jumping. That was probably my favorite moment here at Tech.”
With a lifetime full of moments and but one more match to play in front of the O’Keefe faithful, Askin, Benda, Stavnetchei and Wilson admit they are ready to move on to the next step of their lives -- all four graduate in May and all four have stated at preference to continue playing volleyball, even if it means going overseas.
The quartet will never forget Georgia Tech and believe they’ve left their mark on the program.
“What we will hopefully be remembered for is our energy and spirit and passion and love for the game,” said Askin. “I think you can see when we play how much we love it and how much fun it is to work with each other and play as a team. I hope we’ve showed everyone below us you can work hard and this can be super fun and the rewards are so much greater when you forget about, ‘Me, me me,’ and understand, ‘This is a team. Together we’re going to win. Together we’re going to have fun and do this.’ It’s a lot better that way.”
“These kids have made me very proud,” said Collier. “They have worked very hard for this program and to help us restore some pride in Georgia Tech volleyball.”