Volleyball begins Tanya Johnson era with high hopes

The 2009 season comes during a period of transition for Tech’s volleyball team, as the squad will take the court with a young but talented roster and a new head coach. Still, the Jackets have strung together three straight 20-win seasons, and the players have had little trouble adapting to their new and accomplished coach.

Head Coach Tonya Johnson takes over the Tech program after the departure of Bond Shymansky, who coached the team for seven years before resigning in December to become the head coach at Marquette University. Johnson brings plenty of experience to Atlanta, having been involved in coaching Division I volleyball for 11 years. She was an assistant at LSU from 1998-2002 before moving on to an assistant job at Texas, where she has spent the last six seasons. The Longhorns have had great success in the strong Big XII Conference since she arrived; they have reached the NCAA Tournament each of the past five seasons and made it to the Elite Eight the last three, including a 2008 Final Four appearance when Johnson served as associate head coach.

Texas was one of four Big XII teams in the top 20 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s final 2008 poll, while the highest-ranked ACC team was No. 35 Duke. However, Johnson believes that volleyball is growing in the Southeast and that the level of play in the ACC is rising.

“I think the ACC is an up-and-coming conference…there are a lot of young coaches, but there are [also] some veteran coaches who are starting to take their programs to another level,” Johnson said.

She will inherit a Jackets squad that lost four key seniors from last year’s squad. Gone are outside hitter Talisa Kellogg, middle hitter Callie Miller, setter Allie Niekamp and libero Michelle Kandell, all of whom were vital to the team’s success last season.

Seven players return from the 2008 team, and at the forefront are a pair of seniors in outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis and middle/rightside blocker Brittany Roderick. DeMichelis was second among Tech players last year with 3.17 kills per set and will likely take over as the Jackets’ primary outside hitter. Roderick was fourth on the team in kills and total attacks and should once again be a fixture in the starting lineup.

Johnson will be looking to the seniors to demonstrate leadership on the relatively young squad, and she expects that they will respond well. “I think we have good leaders in [Roderick] and [DeMichelis], and I think they want to go out on a high note,” Johnson said.

Two juniors will be on the 2009 roster, including setter Mary Ashley Tippins, who played sparsely behind Niekamp but had a strong 10.18 assists per set for the season. Also returning is libero Jordan McCullers, who was second among Jackets players with 243 digs and will replace Kandell as the main defensive specialist.

Because Tech brings back only four upperclassmen, the team will have to rely on its younger players frequently, especially on offense. Thankfully, the three sophomores on the roster received plenty of experience last season. Roderick will have help from fellow middle blocker Asia Stawicka, who played in 19 games last season and led the team in hit percentage at .390. Outside hitter Alison Campbell started 27 games in 2008, notching 147 kills and 23 service aces. Another outside hitter, Bailey Hunter, led all Tech outside hitters with a .258 hit percentage.

Johnson also had a strong offseason on the recruiting trail, and the Jackets will welcome six freshmen in 2009. The coach expects that all six will likely see considerable playing time this season.

“I think at some point they’re all going to be able to contribute…they’re here to compete for playing time, and that’s going to be a big plus,” Johnson said.

Tech students who follow college football will see a familiar name among the freshmen: Nicki Meyer, a 5-foot-6 libero from Gainesville, Fla., is the daughter of University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer. Austin, Texas native Hannah Tucci will also help shore up the libero position. The class is fairly balanced between offense and defense, with an outside hitter (Susan Carlson), a rightside hitter (Monique Mead), a middle blocker (Annie Czarnecki) and a setter (Jordan Kissman) also joining the team.

Johnson highlighted Mead as a player to watch this season. Last October, ESPN Rise profiled Mead as a rising star of the sport—a powerful, athletic 5-foot-10 left-hander whose leaping ability allows her to thrive on the front line, even at a position where most players are over six feet tall.

Mead graduated a semester early and enrolled at Tech in the spring to start working with the program early. “She’s a little bit ahead of everybody. I think she’s going to be a pretty special and talented player,” Johnson said.

Of the six freshmen, Mead is the only one who attended high school in Georgia. Johnson’s past coaching stints have given her a number of connections outside the Southeast, and while she does intend to search within Georgia for talent, she prefers to look all across the country for recruits.

“We’ll try to get some of the top players in Georgia to stay home—that’s always a goal. There are some pockets of the country where volleyball is just better, and we want to keep recruiting in those pockets…[but] it’s starting to pick up in the Southeast. So I would hope that in [the near future] we’re able to keep the top players in Georgia,” Johnson said.

As for the lineup, Johnson has made it clear that the girls must earn their playing time. “Our gym is opportunity-oriented; you don’t get to play because you’re a senior, you get to play because you’ve earned it,” Johnson said.

Tech will open the season on August 28, when they take on the Georgia Bulldogs on the first day of the Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational. The Jackets will compete in three other invitationals, and the ACC schedule will begin in earnest on September 25 when North Carolina State comes to O’Keefe Gym.