Volleyball bounces back, beats pair of ACC rivals

The raucous O’Keefe crowd watches as freshman outside hitter Larissa Mendes winds up for her attack against the North Carolina Tar Heels. Tech would win the match 3-1 over the Tar Heels. // Photo by Caitlyn Aycock Student Publications

After getting swept by ACC rival Miami, the Jackets slid two spots from the No. 11 ranking to No. 13. Given that Miami’s sweep came after Tech’s two rather uneven performances against a struggling Virginia team and a solid Florida State team that has been fantastic against the ACC with a 9-1 conference record, a cursory glance would suggest the Jackets are working through some consistency issues on the court. 

However, the reality is that two of the three sets in the Miami contest were decided by two points or less. The Jackets just needed to close out their sets better in their Friday, Oct. 20, match against the Duke Blue Devils and Sunday, Oct. 22, match against the North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels. 

Against Duke, junior outside hitter Bianca Bertolino started early with timely digs to keep the Jackets’ offense flowing. Even though the first few points were fairly back-and-forth, the Jackets settled in and started going on a run. Duke had trouble returning shots from senior outside hitter Tamara Otene, whose power has been apparent this year. Her aggressive serve and tenacity while returning Duke shots proved critical in the Jackets running out to a 14-5 lead early in the first set. After breaking a 3-0 run by the Jackets on a really long point, the Blue Devils looked to build momentum before sophomore middle blocker/right-side hitter Anna Boezi stifled their efforts with a powerful shot over the middle that got O’Keefe on its feet. From there, the Jackets cruised en route to a emphatic 25-10 first-set win.

The second set was much more of an even affair. Although they conceded 23 points, the Jackets defense really came to play with several fantastic digs from not only senior libero Paola Pimentel, but also Otene and senior setter Bella D’Amico. However, the Duke defense also excelled — the set had 11 tie scores and seven lead changes largely because both sides played great defense and team offense. Bertolino and Otene each had big shots that put the Jackets up 20-19, but the Blue Devils were able to storm back and make it 24-22. Boezi came through once again with a shot up the middle to make it 24-23, but a service error gave Duke the set victory. 

Fortunately, the third set was a repeat of the first — all Jackets. The Blue Devils had no real answer for the power the Jackets’ hitters were able to generate on their shots. Freshman outside hitter Larissa Mendes excelled in this set with multiple well-placed shots to the Blue Devils’ backline and punishing serve. She recorded two aces on her serves throughout the match and pushed the defense from the start of the point. In short, the Jackets had no problem dispatching a suddenly vulnerable Blue Devils defense, clinching the setup 25-15 on a beautiful block from Boezi. Even though the Jackets played rather sloppy in the fourth and final set, they pulled it together in the last five points. Duke held a 23-20 lead before the Jackets scored three quick points to tie it up before a huge Bertolino slam to the left to set up a match point. Mendes then hit the dagger — a beautifully placed shot to the middle of the Duke defense clinched the match victory for the Jackets amidst cheers from a raucous O’Keefe crowd. 

Returning to O’Keefe to square off against the UNC Tar Heels, the Jackets looked as if they were going to capture a sweep. Their first set and second set were both one-sided affairs — Otene and Bertolino’s power proved to be too much for the UNC defense to handle while the Jackets defense continued to fly around the court. Again, Mendes had another kill shot to punctuate the first-set victory. Otene’s defense popped almost as much as her hitting in the second set, and the combination of her and Boezi stifled any momentum the Tar Heels attempted to muster. Junior middle blocker DeAndre Pierce would expertly-place a shot to the front left corner to give the Jackets the point victory, and they never looked back. Short of a powerful kill from UNC outside hitter Emani’ Foster, the Tar Heels offered very little resistance, and Bertolino put the Jackets up 2-0 on a deceptive shot where she faked a powerful attack before almost gently nudging it over the net to the side.

The third set could have been another Jackets victory as well, but they squandered it on the last five points. They allowed the Tar Heels to consistently chip away at their four to five point lead before UNC tied it up, 22-22. However, middle blocker Sadie Swift delivered a tough kill that senior libero Paola Pimentel was not able to get under to make it 23-22 in favor of UNC. Although Bertolino threw down a powerful shot and a huge block to get the Jackets all tied up at 24, the ball deflected off the hands of the Tech defense and  out to give UNC the set victory. 

In their fourth and final set of the weekend, the Jackets came out even more aggressive on offense. Pierce’s performance carried over from the second set — she had several great shots to propel the offense forward and the Jackets captured a 13-9 lead before getting out to a 21-14 lead on the shots of Otene and Bertolino with assists from Pimentel. Up 24-17 at match point, the Tar Heels largely summed up the theme of this match by failing to return a powerful Otene hit and the Jackets captured their second straight match victory of the weekend.

For their weekend effort, Bertolino and Pimentel were named as the ACC’s offensive and defensive players of the week. Their 17-3 opening effort is the best under Head Coach Michelle Collier since 2021. Of note, Bertolino, the ACC leader in aces, is on pace for a 50-ace season, which would be only the fifth such season in this century. Pimentel’s defensive impact is equally impressive — she leads the ACC with 4.47 dig/set average and is critical to the Jackets boasting the second-best dig/set average across Power 5 teams. Having offensive and defensive centerpieces like Bertolino and Pimentel, along with a versatile and powerful roster, makes the Jackets a force to be reckoned with in both the ACC and national competition of collegiate volleyball. 

The Jackets will next travel to take on a pair of ACC foes. First, they go to Boston, Massachussetts, to take on the Boston College Eagles on Friday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m then move to Syracuse, New York, to take on the Syracuse Orange on Oct. 29. The Jackets are seeking another pair of wins.