The Jackets’ volleyball team begins conference play in earnest this weekend, and the team’s 7-4 record through four early-season invitational tournaments has generated confidence and enthusiasm among the coaches and players.
Tech got off to an exciting start with a five-set victory over Georgia in the season opener and has seen success throughout the first four weeks of the season. The team has swept both of its home invitational tournaments, and the Jackets’ 1-4 record so far on the road has come against very talented competition.
The Jackets have also had a number of notable individual performances along the way, with two players earning ACC Volleyball Player of the Week awards so far: one for freshman rightside hitter Monique Mead and one for senior middle blocker Brittany Roderick. Mead earned the recognition after posting 37 kills and 30 digs in the season-opening Georgia Tech Regency Suites Invitational, including 20 kills in the win over Georgia, as she powered Tech’s attack in the three-game sweep. Roderick earned the honor after leading Tech to a 3-0 sweep in the Courtyard Classic with an average of 2.54 kills and 0.77 blocks per set for the weekend.
This is Head Coach Tonya Johnson’s first season with the Jackets after 11 years of collegiate volleyball coaching at LSU and Texas. She left the latter after the Longhorns posted a 31-3 record last season and reached the NCAA Final Four.
Johnson’s success has continued early on as the Jackets won their opener and have picked up six more early-season wins.
“I think we’ve been pretty successful so far, and hopefully some day we can be in the top ten,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s initial goals include executing fundamentals well, an especially important task for the six freshmen on the team. She has changed the training style slightly, running drills and working on techniques for blocking and defense during practice.
“[The drills] really break [the game] down for every aspect, and every drill has a purpose,” said senior outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis.
During the weekend games, Johnson noticed several areas for the team to improve upon, including improving their transition game, keeping the outside hitters in rhythm and playing the ball a little higher. Still, the team was facing top competition in No. 9 Minnesota and a Denver team that went 25-7 last season, and even though the Jackets lost both matches at the Denver Pioneer Classic, Mead was happy to have the chance to play against a team in the national top ten.
As the team heads into the ACC schedule in earnest, returning players are meshing well with the large group of six freshmen, who have replaced five departed seniors. Johnson says the team has been very receptive to the newcomers, many of whom have been able to contribute significantly already. Mead has earned a starting spot at rightside hitter, while defensive specialist Hannah Tucci and outside hitter Susan Carlson have become reliable reserves.
The freshmen are making the transition from high school to collegiate volleyball well. “[College coaching] is definitely more rough, and you know they’ll call you out on and fix all your mistakes. But I really enjoy it; it makes me a better player, and they tell you how to do better because they’re there to make the team better,” Mead said.
The team has also meshed well with Johnson, who replaced Bond Shymansky as Tech’s head coach. Shymansky coached the Jackets since 2002 and averaged 24.6 victories per season, the highest among active ACC coaches prior to his departure. Early indications are that Johnson has earned the players’ trust and is well-equipped to continue the recent success.
“At first it was hard, like with anyone else, to understand who [Johnson] is as a coach and to understand who we are as players…But we’re really happy with the coaching staff,” senior outside hitter Chrissy DeMichelis said.
DeMichelis finds that the team can have fun while still being competitive, understanding and tight together. The players and coaches are also appreciative of the support of Tech fans at every game, which likely has factored into the team’s 6-0 home record.
“I love that crowd. It’s electric, and the players feed off it,” Johnson said.
The Jackets will look to draw on the home-court advantage this weekend as the team plays in a pair of home games against North Carolina State tonight and North Carolina on Sunday. Tech opened ACC play in the Courtyard Classic opener with a five-set victory over Clemson and will look to move to 3-0 against ACC opponents after this weekend.