The uncertainty of playing under a completely new coaching staff did not deter Tech’s volleyball team in 2009. A deep and talented squad led by Head Coach Tonya Johnson finished the year 21-10 overall, including a 15-5 mark in ACC play, and qualififed for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
It was Johnson’s first season as a head coach after several seasons as an assistant at LSU and Texas, and she extended Tech’s streak of 20-win seasons to four.
“Overall, for our first year and for the fact that we lost five seniors and four of the five were starters, and that’s probably more than half of the offense, I thought it was a pretty good year,” Johnson said.
Senior middle blocker Brittany Roderick played for Johnson’s predecessor, Bond Shymansky, for three seasons and said the team had no trouble adjusting after the coaching change.
“[Johnson] just brought a lot more different coaching characteristics that I hadn’t had in a long time, and she’s very positive. It was a great transition—very, very smooth,” Roderick said.
Johnson’s preference to rely on her assistant coaches during games contrasted Shymansky’s more centralized coaching style.
“It’s nothing against Bond… different coaches have different strategies. Tonya is very inclusive with her whole staff; everyone had a say in everything, even during the game,” Roderick said. “I had never had a coach like that, but I really like that.”
“If our team sees the positive chemistry we have as a staff, then it trickles on down….We all have one common goal, and that is to win,” Johnson said.
The team had a strong year despite having a very young roster with only four upperclassmen—two juniors, libero Jordan McCullers and setter Mary Ashley Tippins, and two seniors, Roderick and outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis. Thanks to strong leadership from the coaching staff and the upperclassmen, the younger Jackets matured quickly.
“One of the things I stressed to the upperclassmen before we even got to the preseason was the fact that they would have to accept these freshmen with open arms in order for us to be successful. They did a fantastic job with that,” Johnson said.
“That was one of our goals from the start, to make sure [the freshmen] felt welcome and that we were like a family,” Roderick said.
What grew to be a memorable season for the team opened with one of the biggest games of the year, as the Jackets took on rival Georgia as part of the Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational.
With a capacity crowd packing O’Keefe Gym, Tech jumped out to a 2-0 set lead before the Bulldogs rallied to win the next two sets. The Jackets took the decisive fifth set 16-14 to win the only battle between the teams in 2009.
“[The win] was huge… not only for us but huge for Tonya, because in her first head coaching game she’d be beating our rival. It was definitely the biggest boost we could have gotten,” Roderick said.
Johnson’s past stints as an assistant introduced her to rivalries such as Texas-Oklahoma and LSU-Arkansas, but she said the local rivalry is just as notable.
“To have that kind of experience in my first match as a head coach was incredible. I had all kinds of feelings…the anxiety about killed me,” Johnson said.
After some challenging out-of-conference matchups, the Jackets had great success once ACC play began and finished the year 15-5 in conference play, picking up a road victory over No. 15 Florida State along the way.
Perhaps Tech’s most impressive mark, though, was its 13-3 record in matches played at O’Keefe Gym. Roderick noted that the setup of the gym creates an environment matched by few other NCAA teams.
“You go and look at a lot of the other places…and they play in these huge basketball coliseums where they’re never going to fill up their coliseum. You just don’t get an environment like O’Keefe in any other place,” Roderick said.
Tech did not cruise through the season problem-free, though. One frequent on-court issue proved to be the team’s ability to close out sets after taking a late lead.
Johnson tried to address the odd struggles in practice. “One of the things we worked on was situational play… we were just giving away too many runs, so we started putting ourselves in drill situations to capitalize on that,” Johnson said, noting that the team’s lack of experience likely contributed to the struggles.
Still, the Jackets took advantage of a very deep roster. Even with four talented upperclassmen and a freshman phenom in rightside hitter Monique Mead, it was two sophomores—outside hitter Bailey Hunter and middle blocker Asia Stawicka—who led the team in kills and blocks, respectively.
“I actually thought [Hunter] would be an All-ACC member… but that’s okay, because hopefully it’s put a little fire in her belly to want to prove people wrong next year,” Johnson said.
Overall, the Jackets were successful enough that they were one of 64 teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They flew across to the country to Los Angeles to take on Baylor in a first-round battle.
Tech put up a solid fight, but the Jackets could not slow down Baylor and fell 3-0 to end the season. Despite the tough finale, though, both Johnson and Roderick were more than happy with the team’s accomplishments.
“The girls here are my family, my best friends. I can’t imagine having the best experience I ever had without them,” Roderick said, reflecting on her four years with the team. “I didn’t take my experience for granted, and my senior year was the senior year I was looking for. I wouldn’t have done anything different at all.”
Johnson, whose former team—Texas—reached the national title game before falling to Penn State, still cheers for her old team but has never looked back since joining the Jackets.
“I am 100 percent positive I made the right decision,” Johnson said. “If I didn’t think there was potential here to do great things, I would not be here…Georgia Tech is the place for Tonya Johnson.”