Volleyball beats UGA, wins first three of ‘09

Three games into the season, the outlook is bright for Tech volleyball as the team’s 2009 campaign gets underway. The Jackets went 3-0 on their opening weekend, defeating Georgia in an exciting five-set Friday night contest and sweeping Austin Peay and Mercer on Saturday to win the Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational at O’Keefe Gym.

Friday’s game marked the first time the Jackets had hosted the Bulldogs in their first game of the season. Tech traveled to Athens for the 2008 season opener and earned a 3-1 victory, marking their third consecutive triumph in the annual rivalry game.

The team received plenty of support from the Tech faithful for the battle against Georgia. The game, which followed the tournament’s opening contest between Austin Peay and Mercer, took place before a sold-out crowd of 2,000. Plenty of fans were left stranded outside O’Keefe Gym because the building filled to capacity well before game time.

“[It was a] great crowd tonight. The fans were involved from the beginning…being in a rivalry and playing in front of 2,000 people, [the players] just feed off of the adrenaline,” said Head Coach Tonya Johnson.

The Jackets drew off of the energy in the gym and got off to a fast start in the first set, using a mix of power and touch on offense to build a sizable lead. Rightside hitter Monique Mead, the only freshman starter, landed a pair of powerful spikes for Tech’s first two points; later, junior setter Mary Ashley Tippins caught Georgia off guard by tapping over a fake set attempt to give Tech a 7-4 lead.

The Jackets had an eight-point lead when Georgia took five of six points to close the gap to 18-14, but Mead and sophomore middle blocker Asia Stawicka responded with back-to-back kills for Tech. The Jackets went on to take the last five points to finish the 25-15 first set victory.

Georgia started the second set by taking the first three points. Tech fought back to take the lead, and back-to-back service aces by senior middle blocker Brittany Roderick gave the Jackets an 11-7 advantage. Two points later, Tippins notched an ace of her own to put Tech ahead 13-8. Both teams committed several service errors late in the set, but the Jackets continued to play well on all fronts. DeMichelis had a pair of powerful spikes for kills late in the set, leading Tech to a 25-19 set victory and a 2-0 lead in the match.

To start the third set Tech got strong offense from DeMichelis, Mead, Hunter, and Stawicka, strong backcourt defense from junior libero Jordan McCullers, and good net play from Tippins and the front line en route to building a 16-9 lead.

The Bulldogs began a big comeback midway through the set. Georgia took the next four points and eventually tied the game at 19, taking advantage of several Tech attack errors. The Jackets rebounded to pull ahead 24-23, but the Bulldogs took the last three points to win the third set and stay alive in the match. Georgia went on to take the first four points of the fourth set.

“At some point that [adrenaline] goes away because the other team finds their rhythm. In the middle of game 3, that’s what happened,” Johnson said.

The Jackets regained their composure and fought back, but the Bulldogs were at their best in the fourth set. After Tech rallied to take a 12-9 lead, Georgia won four straight points to regain the lead, and they only allowed Tech to pull ahead once in the rest of the set. Tech made several service errors down the stretch, and Bulldog outside hitter Erika Clark recorded three late kills to power Georgia to a 25-23 fourth set win.

With the match tied at two sets apiece, the teams went to a 15-point fifth set and battled intensely, with neither side putting together a run of more than three points. With the score tied at 13, Mead tapped the ball over to give Tech a slim lead. Georgia took the next point, but the Jackets reclaimed the lead after strong net play set up Hunter for a kill. Tippins and Roderick then combined on a block to win the set 16-14 and give the match to the Jackets.

The win was Johnson’s first as Tech’s head coach. “We knew Georgia wasn’t going to back down—they’re a very good team, and they just kept coming at us, but we were able to hold them at the end. I’m very proud of our kids…for just hanging in there and maintaining,” Johnson said.

Mead was the star of the game, posting a double-double in her first collegiate match with 20 kills and 10 digs. She also had seven assists, a pair of service aces and a .351 hit percentage on the day.

“To just be on fire like that, kudos to her, because it’s a lot of pressure being a freshman and playing in [her] first match,” Johnson said.

DeMichelis and Hunter notched 13 kills and one ace each, and DeMichelis also had three solo blocks. Stawicka had nine kills, four block assists and a hit percentage of .692.

With Georgia out of the way, the Jackets cruised through both of their Saturday games. Tech took down Austin Peay 3-0 and held the Governors below 20 points in all three sets, winning 25-19, 25-18, 25-17.

Austin Peay stayed close in the first two sets, but both times Tech was able to pull away late; at one point, the Jackets had a run of nine straight points in the second set. Once again, Mead was the star on offense with a team-high 11 kills and 10 digs, and as a team the Jackets recorded four solo blocks and 14 assists while holding the Governors to a .099 hit percentage.

The Jackets later faced Mercer in Saturday night’s tournament finale and were once again able to complete a sweep, taking down the Bears in three sets 25-22, 25-16, 25-17 to win the Regency Suites Invitational. The Jackets put together several long runs throughout the contest and only allowed the Bears to take the lead once during the match. The Jackets held Mercer to a .103 hit percentage.

Mead was the clear star of Tech’s opening weekend. The left-handed freshman led the team with 37 kills and 30 digs, adding five service aces and seven block assists along the way as she earned tournament MVP honors and the ACC Player of the Week award.

“I thought she had an incredible performance. For a freshman, there’s a little bit of pressure on her because she’s taking so many swings…and for her to come out and play the way she did was really huge for us,” Johnson said.

The team’s veterans were impressive as well. DeMichelis was second on the squad with 33 kills and had a team-high six solo blocks. Tippins led the team with 112 assists and seven aces while adding 22 digs and 10 kills. Stawicka was strong at the net, contributing on 15 blocks (two solo) and hitting a team-high .618 as she recorded 22 kills. McCullers, the new starting libero, finished second to Mead with 26 digs.

Meanwhile, Johnson was able to find playing time for the freshmen throughout the weekend. Along with Mead, defensive specialist Hannah Tucci played in all three matches and finished the weekend with 15 digs. Three other rookies—outside hitter Susan Carlson, middle blocker Annie Czarnecki, and libero Nicki Meyer—took the court on Saturday for their first collegiate experience.

“We’ve got to get better on the ball control side. I think we do some things really well on the offensive side—we’re really in rhythm. We’ve just got to get back to the basics of passing and playing defense, and not have [any] mental lulls,” Johnson said.

The volleyball team travels to Tennessee this weekend for Middle Tennessee State University’s Blue Raider Bash. Tech will face off against host Middle Tennessee tonight and take on Ohio University and the University of Northern Illinois tomorrow in their first road action of the season.