Volleyball aims to continue success

With several key players from last season’s squad returning to lead a young but talented roster, the Tech volleyball team enters the 2010 season prepared to contend for an ACC title and a second straight berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Jackets are a year removed from a strong 2009 campaign that saw the team go 21-10 overall, including a 15-5 mark in ACC play, in Head Coach Tonya Johnson’s first season with the team.

Tech faced a tough schedule and picked up some notable wins along the way, including a thrilling 3-2 victory in the season opener against Georgia at O’Keefe Gym and a 3-2 upset of then-No. 17 Florida State at Tallahassee, Fla. that was the Seminoles’ only loss in ACC play last season. The result was an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, marking the Jackets’ first appearance in the tournament since 2004; the run ended quickly, though, as Baylor defeated Tech 3-0 in the opening round.

Expectations both inside and outside the program are higher for the upcoming season thanks to last year’s success, but Johnson views that as a positive.

“Any time you have a successful season and you have the number of people returning that we have, your expectations are definitely higher. That’s our goal every year—to raise the expectations of this program and to have higher and bigger goals every year,” Johnson said.

As was the case last year, the Jackets will rely on a small group of upperclassmen to guide a young roster during the season. Of the 15 players on the roster, two are seniors and three are juniors.

The seniors, setter Mary Ashley Tippins and libero Jordan McCullers, were both key contributors as juniors last season, as Tippins recorded an ACC-leading 11.27 assists per set and McCullers was sixth in the conference with 4.14 digs per set.

Both seniors hope to lead the team to greater success in 2010.

“Jordan and I want to go out with a bang and leave a legacy…so there’s definitely a lot more pressure on us this year, being the leaders and carrying this team,” Tippins said.

Tippins and McCullers will lead one of the deepest Tech squads in recent memory. The Jackets have multiple talented players at just about every position, and both the coaches and players stressed the importance of having depth throughout the roster.

“The first thing [Johnson] said to us is that we finally have depth this year. We have a ton of options, and it’s very exciting for me as a setter,” Tippins said.

“It’s nice to be able to give people a break when we have the opportunity. I feel like there are spots where other people can fit in, besides the starters, so I feel like that’s going to be huge for our overall growth and success,” Johnson said.

That depth will help the Jackets overcome the loss of three key contributors from last year’s team. Most notably, outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis and middle blocker Brittany Roderick are gone after completing their senior seasons in 2009. Both were fixtures in the starting lineup as seniors and both were forces along Tech’s front line, finishing third and fourth on the team in kills, respectively.

Tech has several strong options to step in at outside hitter, led by junior Bailey Hunter, who quietly had a stellar 2009 campaign. Hunter led Tech and was fourth in the ACC with 380 kills, and she had a streak of 19 matches with double-digit kills during the season.

“Bailey wants more responsibilities in regard to what she gives to the team. She came back in great shape and she’s done a really nice job this preseason,” Johnson said.

Across the court, sophomore rightside hitter Monique Mead will be a fixture in the lineup as she looks to build on a strong freshman season.

Mead burst onto the scene with 20 kills and 10 digs in her first career game, and the left-hander finished the year with 356 kills, 228 digs and 90 blocks, recording double-doubles in eight matches.

Junior middle blocker Asia Stawicka started every game last season alongside Roderick. Stawicka offered a strong defensive presence in the middle, leading the Jackets with a .331 hit percentage and 126 blocks.

Defensive specialist Hannah Tucci has also left the team after her freshman season. Tucci played in every game last season and was often used as a situational defensive replacement.

“She played an important role on our team last fall…She was a very good passer and defensive player, and now it’s an opportunity for someone else to step into that spot,” Johnson said.

Though the losses will hurt, the Jackets received an influx of talent with six new players—four incoming freshmen and two transfers. Johnson believes all of them could play a role in the upcoming season.

“It’s been great to have them in the gym, and they’re all working hard,” Johnson said. “I think at some point they all can [have an impact]. It just depends on them and how fast they learn the systems.”

The transfers happen to be sisters who attended different colleges before both transferring to Tech. Alexis Woodson, a middle blocker, enrolled at Indiana and started in 29 games as a freshman in 2008; Mariah Woodson redshirted last season at Florida and will be a freshman this year. They are the daughters of Mike Woodson, who coached the Atlanta Hawks from 2004-10.

The recruited freshmen are a diverse group, with three out-of-state players and one international talent joining the Jackets for 2010.

Outside hitter Jennifer Percy is a native of Mobile, Ala., while setter Kaleigh Colson and middle blocker Quinn Evans come from Texas, where Johnson has a strong recruiting base from her stints at LSU and Texas.

Outside hitter Ivona Kolak comes to the team from Croatia; she becomes the latest international talent to join a team that has brought in strong players from Europe in recent years, including Stawicka, a Poland native, and Ulrike Stegemann, a German product who starred for Tech from 2004-07.

Johnson noted that Tech’s strong academics are often a big draw for international players. “When you’re recruiting an international student, the academic piece is very important to them. The volleyball piece is important, but the academic piece is even more important. To be able to go back to their home country and say they have a degree from the United States is a big plus for them.”

Tippins said the team has had no trouble developing chemistry with the newcomers. “We were a really close-knit team to begin with, and these five freshmen have fit in really easily,” Tippins said.

As the season approaches, the battle with Georgia looms on the evening of Sept. 11, the same day the Jackets are set to face No. 8 Washington in the morning. Still, the team plans to approach the year one game at a time and is focused on the season opener against Indiana on Aug. 27.

“As much as you want to look forward to matches [down the road], in the world of athletics it’s been proven that that’s not the smartest thing to do,” Johnson said.

The team should continue to play well early in matches and will look to improve its ability to close out victories, something that proved problematic at times in 2009. Tech went 13-3 in matches that lasted three sets but was just 8-7 in four and five-set matches.

“That’s always been our curse. We’ll be up 2-0 and kill teams the first two games, and we’ll always [end up at] five games…It’s definitely a point of interest for us,” Tippins said.

The Jackets will hold their White vs. Gold match on Aug. 21 and open the season at home six days later, hosting Indiana, Alabama A&M and UAB in the Georgia Tech Courtyard Marriott Classic.

All were competitive teams last season, and Alabama A&M earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament.