Volleyball season starting up

For the second straight season, Tech’s volleyball team will begin its season against an all-too-familiar rival. The Jackets open the 2009 season tonight against the University of Georgia tonight in O’Keefe Gymnasium.

The Tech-UGA game will be one of two played on the first day of the Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational tournament, which takes place this weekend from Aug. 28-29. The first game will be between another pair of notable schools from the South in Macon, Ga.-based Mercer and Clarksville, Tenn.-based Austin Peay.

Thanks to the round-robin format of the tournament, each team is slated to play three games—one against each of the other teams—for a total of six games. After facing the Bulldogs tonight, Tech will take on Austin Peay and Mercer on Saturday to close out the tournament.

Tech typically plays one game each season against the Bulldogs, and in recent years the Jackets have seen considerable success in the rivalry, having won each of the past three match ups.

In 2006, the teams faced off in a well-fought five-set match in Atlanta as part of the Regency Suites Invitational; after a strong start, the Jackets held off a late Georgia rally to take the match 3-2 (30-19, 30-15, 26-30, 25-30, 15-10). Then-freshman outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis sparked Tech’s offense to a strong finish in the fifth set. In 2007, the teams once again battled in Atlanta, and the Jackets took down a strong Bulldogs squad in four sets, winning 3-1 (29-31, 30-24, 30-28, 30-26). Last year’s game saw Tech make the trip to Athens for the first time since 2005. The Jackets emerged victorious, taking the match 3-1 (33-31, 25-22, 22-25, 25-22) as another then-freshman outside hitter, Alison Campbell, notched 20 kills in her team debut.

As the 2008 battle was in Athens, this will mark the first time that Tech volleyball has hosted Georgia to open the season. Tech’s 31-match history against the Bulldogs on the volleyball court has been one of lengthy streaks. Georgia won the first twenty contests between the teams, but as the Jackets’ program has grown, the team has seen considerable success in the rivalry and has taken ten of the last eleven matches, including each of the last three.

Like Tech, Georgia lost its top attacker from last season with the graduation of outside hitter Maria Taylor. Still, the Bulldogs still have plenty of experience on the offensive end with junior outside hitter Erika Clark, who led the team in digs and was second in kills in 2008, and junior middle hitter Valentina Gonzalez, who had a team-high .275 hit percentage last year.

Tech has faced Mercer nineteen times with much better results. The Jackets are 18-1 all time against the Bears, who posted an 18-10 record last season with a 13-7 mark against fellow Atlantic Sun Conference teams. Mercer’s squad is relatively young, as setter/defensive specialist Chelsea Gebben is the only senior on the team, but the Bears are optimistic after last season’s success. Head coach Noelle Rooke is entering her sixth season with the team and is coming off a season in which she was named the Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year.

Meanwhile, the last team in the tournament—the Austin Peay Governors—will take on the Jackets on Saturday in the first-ever matchup between the teams. Like Tech, Austin Peay is transitioning to life under a new coach after hiring Mike Johnson in March. Johnson has inherited a fairly experienced squad with three seniors and three juniors. Senior outside hitter Stephanie Champine will return to head the attack after leading the team with 3.40 kills per set and 1,135 total assists in 2008.

The game against Georgia will also mark the beginning of Head Coach Tonya Johnson’s career with the Jackets. Johnson completed a highly successful stint as an assistant coach and associate head coach at the University of Texas, helping to lead the team to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four in 2008, and she will look to replicate that success as she takes over a growing program at Tech.

This will mark the fourth consecutive year that the Jackets have hosted the Regency Suites Invitational and the eighth straight year Tech has hosted an early-season invitational tournament. It is the first of four invitational tournaments in which the Jackets are participating this season, and one of two that the team will host in Atlanta.

Next week, the team will travel to Tennessee for the Blue Raider Bash, hosted by Middle Tennessee State University, in which the team will take on the host Blue Raiders, as well as Ohio University and the University of Northern Illinois.

On the weekend of September 11-12, the Jackets will host the Georgia Tech Courtyard Classic, which will feature Southeast Missouri State, the University of Mississippi, and Tech’s first ACC opponent, Clemson University.

A week after that, the Jackets will travel to Denver for their final early-season tournament and face the University of Denver and the University of Minnesota in the Denver Invitational. After that all of Tech’s opponents will be ACC teams.