Volleyball prepares for 2011 season

After a tough 18-14 season last year, the Tech volleyball team looks to improve in their 2011 campaign, which opens up this Friday with the Georgia Tech Courtyard Classic. The tournament will be held on campus at the O’Keefe Gymnasium and will feature teams from Louisville, Tennessee Tech and Kansas State. The Jackets’ first match will pit them against the Wildcats of Kansas State at 7 p.m.

With a host of new talent competing for or entering the starting lineup, Tech will have some adjustments to make early in the season. Not long after the end of last season former Tech leaders Mary Ashley Tippins and Jordan McCullers graduated, leaving big holes in the lineup.

Replacing McCullers will not be extremely difficult for the Jackets this season, as they have two upperclassmen who could fill the libero role this season. Susan Carlson started 29 games last season as a defensive specialist, and the junior from Calif. managed to rack up 31 assists and 222 digs. Junior Nicki Meyer could be another option for the Jackets at libero, but she has not started a game in her Tech career.

Unlike McCullers, Tippins may be harder to replace, as Tech will have to rely on younger players to take over at setter. Last season Tippins led the team in assists with 1302, but Tech should be in good hands with sophomore setter Kaleigh Colson. Although Colson did not start a game last season, she was a four-year letter winner at Westwood High School, and led them to a district championship in 2009. Another potential option for Tech setter this season is true freshman Ali Santi, who came all the way to Tech from Hawaii.

The duo of McCullers and Tippins will be missed, but with talented playmakers like junior rightside hitter Monique Mead and senior middle blocker Asia Stawicka, the challenges ahead should not hinder the Jackets’ chances at making a run at an ACC title and an NCAA tournament berth.

“I would love to make it to the NCAA Tournament and see how far we can go,” Mead said.

Mead was in many regards the most valuable player for the Jackets last season and she was an instrumental part in the Jackets winning 18 games last year. As a sophomore, Mead recorded a team-high 515 kills and averaged 4.29 kills per set. Along with her killing skills, Mead also proved she was an all-around player by being third on the team in both digs and blocks with 246 and 102 respectively.

Although Mead led the team in kills, Stawicka led the team in attacking percentage at .337. Stawicka also started every game for the Jackets last season and Tech needed her in every game. Stawicka was the leading blocker on the team, and had 20 more blocks than junior middle blocker Alexis Woodson, who was second on the team.

“One of our goals for the team is to be more consistent during the game, to finish strong and just to execute the little things. Now that I’m a senior I still want to improve and get better as a player, but also to be a leader of the team,” Stawicka said.

Execution will be critical for the Jackets early on, as the team’s first conference match in the loaded ACC is just three weeks away, when the team travels to S.C. to face the rival Clemson Tigers on Sept. 16.

Tech’s last tournament appearance was 2009, where they lost in the first round.

“If we could make it and [advance] a couple of rounds, that’d be awesome,” Mead said.

This year Tech will face stiff competition with its ACC schedule, playing against talented teams from Duke, North Carolina and Florida State, who are all likely to be ranked at the start of the season. As expected, though, Tech’s biggest game of the year will come against the Georgia Bulldogs.

UGA will travel down to Atlanta on Sept. 9 for the Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational. Though the game will be at the forefront of the fans’ minds, the team is focused on taking the season one game at a time.

“Every game counts and you can’t choose which one is the best one,” Stawicka said.

Head Coach Tonya Johnson will also try to improve her record at Tech. Hired in January 2009, Johnson immediately brought in top talent not only from the state of Georgia, but from around the world, and took Tech to the NCAA Tournament in her first season.

Replacing important players at setter and libero will be difficult, but Johnson has shown she can build a competitive team. Johnson will also look to get the most out of her team, who are highly motivated both as a team and individually.

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