After a pair of ACC road wins against unranked opponents, the Jackets hopped into the top 10 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) rankings. Even with the four game winning streak, Tech would need to play perfect to knock off the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals and take a share of the ACC lead. Heading into O’Keefe Gymnasium on Friday, Nov. 3, the Jackets had not beaten the national powerhouse Louisville since 2016. Tech would have to try and combat the Louisville aerial attack without sophomore middle blocker Liv Mogridge, who has been out with a knee injury, and rely heavily on sophomore right-side hitter/middle blocker Anna Boezi and junior middle blocker DeAndra Pierce in her place.
The first set was a back-and-forth affair. Both teams took turns taking the lead until the Cardinals got hot late. The Cardinals went on a 9-2 run to take a commanding 23-17 advantage. The Jackets began to fight back though, winning the next three points; however, Louisville responded, giving them a 24-20 lead and set point. With the first set certain to set the tone for the rest of the match, Tech knew capturing the first set was integral to a historic upset. Down four points, Boezi nailed a kill and then junior outside hitter Bianca Bertolino came up to serve. Bertolino, known for her violent top spin serves, got on a service roll. Another kill by Boezi, combined with a trio of service aces from Bertolino, gave the Jackets the stunning comeback they needed and propelled them to a 26-24 first set victory over the highly ranked Cardinals.
Following an incredible first set comeback win, the sold out crowd in O’Keefe was raucous with energy and enthusiasm. Even with the momentum of an incredible comeback, winning the second set would require continued focus and determination. Bertolino continued her stellar play in the second set with a plethora of kills, digs and aces. The Jackets continued a back-and-forth second set, with each team only having a marginal lead throughout the set. All squared at 20, a kill by Pierce followed by a block from graduate middle blocker Afedo Manyang and Pierce gave Tech a two-point advantage. Louisville then burned a timeout to reduce the Jackets’ momentum, but it was too late. Pierce and Manyang finished off the set in dramatic fashion with a closing pair of kills, and Tech took a two set advantage over Louisville. Pierce and Manyang both finished the match with nine kills, each hitting at a .467 clip.
Even with a two set lead, the Jackets knew from past experiences that the match was far from over. Just last year, at home against Louisville, the Jackets took a 2-0 lead just for the Cardinals to make a comeback and reverse sweep the match 3-2. When the Jackets came out flat in the third set, O’Keefe became quiet, fearing they were experiencing a similar occurrence as last year where Louisville snatched the third set away from the Jackets 25-17.
While the Jackets lost some traction in the third set, a team huddle led by head coach Michelle Collier got the team in the correct headspace. Like the previous sets, the Jackets and Cardinals exchanged early points in the fourth set, but the momentum shifted when the set was squared at 10. Bertolino continued her outstanding performance with another lengthy service run highlighted with a couple of aces. O’Keefe was revitalized with energy, and victory was in sight. Errors by the Cardinals combined with kills by Pierce stretched the lead to 22-14, and the Jackets were just three points away from knocking off the third-ranked team in the country. Although the Cardinals started to claw back, it was too late, and Boezi capped off the match with a kill to clinch the 3-1 match win. The match for the Jackets was a collection of career highs. Boezi tallied a career best of eight kills on a .375 hitting percentag,e and Bertolino led the Jackets with seven aces.
Coming off a historic win over No. 3 Louisville, the Jackets faced off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in another ACC contest on Sunday, Nov. 5. Unlike the Cardinals, the Fighting Irish were on a losing streak, entering the contest on a six-game skid and a 10-11 record overall. Unlike the match against the Cardinals, it was clear early on that the Jackets were in firm control. Tech’s offense and defense dominated throughout and were led by fifth year defensive specialist/libero Paola Pimentel who not only had double digit digs but also collected a rare two kills of her own. These were Pimentel’s first kills of the season. Senior outside hitter Tamara Otene and Bertolino also had a successful match, combining for 26 kills at an over 40% hitting percentage. Their dominant offensive performances led the way for the Jackets to capture commanding leads in each of the three sets. In the end, Tech took down the Fighting Irish 25-16, 25-15 and 25-14 in straight sets to capture a sixth straight ACC win and to move to 21-3 on the season. The now eighth ranked Jackets will attempt to continue their winning streak into a top 10 affair against the currently 7th ranked University of Pittsburgh Panthers at 5 p.m. on Nov. 10 in O’Keefe Gymnasium.