By Kyle Koso
Details on the 2021 NIVC are currently being ironed out by tournament directors at Triple Crown Sports – we will be sure to share specific information as soon as it becomes available at www.womensnivc.com
When the world seemed determined to pull everything apart, the Georgia Tech volleyball program just refused to let anything crumble.
The Yellow Jackets fended off COVID-19 disruptions with Ninja-like skills last season, going 14-5 overall and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That was the first tourney victory there since 2004, another step forward for coach Michelle Collier’s approach that included winning the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) in 2019 and earned Tech a spot on the 2021 preseason AVCA poll (No. 24), the first time that’s happened since 2005.
With opening day landing Friday at the UCF Challenge, the Jackets are brimming with experience, confidence and a full-roster desire to meet every expectation that hovers over the squad.
“We are definitely grateful to be back on the court. Everybody has worked so hard to keep everyone safe, and to have fans back in the gym, have the full experience, it’s surreal and exciting,” said Collier, who took over at Georgia Tech in 2014 and guided the team to a 27-8 record overall the past two seasons. “We are making the right decisions in recruiting; people who are also academically focused but want to play this sport at the highest possible level. It’s a dream come true to see all of this come to life, and the main reason is the people around me. It’s easy to have a vision, but I’ve got the right people in the right place.”
That list includes assistant coach Claudio Pinheiro, like Collier a Brazilian native, who was a longtime coach on the national team and part of two Olympic championships. There’s even more heft on the coaching staff resume with Arielle Wilson, who was part of Penn State’s 2007-10 run of winning the NCAA title.
Of course, talented players are essential as well, and Georgia Tech is blessed in that department. Senior Mariana Brambilla (270 kills), junior Julia Bergmann (269 kills) and senior Mikaila Dowd (145 kills) are the slam-dunk finishers; returning starters Erin Moss (junior) and Kayla Kaiser (senior) provide reliable play, while the engine is set in motion by senior setter Matti McKissock, who sits ninth all-time in program history in assists. It’s a group that has been leaned on from the start, one that learned a lot about postseason pressure in the 2018 and 2019 NIVC.
“That was a class that’s been playing a lot since their freshman year. That was a tough situation; a lot of players had graduated, and they had to step in right away,” Collier said. “They carried a lot of responsibility, and that’s one reason we decided to play in the NIVC – that was such a young group, and they needed the experience of playing, especially in a knock-out tournament, where if you lose you’re out.
“We played it in 2018, and the buildup for us to 2019, and then the buildup to the 2020 season, it was great to get that experience. I felt we just got better and better, and the competition got harder, and it prepared us for the (2020) run in the NCAA’s. We want that in our culture, that we are playing volleyball in December, and the NIVC definitely helped create that culture and the normalcy of thinking we’ve got a couple more weeks to go after Thanksgiving. It paid off for sure.”
Another sign of the program’s growth is the influx of six freshmen, as Collier makes sure the cupboard doesn’t get exposed when a lot of talent departs in the next couple of seasons. The new crew is pushing for playing time already, and Collier is pleased to see that the depth is not coming at the expense of team harmony.
“This summer, the seniors did a great job with our big freshman class, and they’ve done a great job embracing everyone and making people super comfortable,” Collier said. “Things do evolve and change, and now we have more depth than we every had before. There’s more competition for their position, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to that. We want to win championships, and that means we need a good amount of players capable of helping.”
Georgia Tech will not have to wait long to see how the recipe is coming together this fall, as the season begins with the UCF (Central Florida) Challenge on Aug. 27-28. Matches against Penn State, UCF and St. John’s will certainly highlight strengths and expose weaknesses, as those three programs are a combined 110-38 (.743) over the past two seasons.
A loss here or there won’t spin Collier or the Jackets into depression; there’s a lot to be learned by taking on the best. But Tech wants it to be understood – opponents might be learning a few lessons as well after a healthy dose of what the Jackets do best.
“I’m looking for us to compete. We talk about our goals, we want to be one of the top teams, so we can’t shy away from the top team and challenging ourselves,” Collier added. “You have to play good competition; that’s what we saw in the NIVC. We want to leave no doubt; we made the NCAA tournament but were on the bubble last year, and we want it to be a no-brainer, to be one of the top teams and that will get the call.
“This team is ready for that kind of challenge. We can compete with anyone on the schedule, but it will be a challenge. We’ll need everyone; we are up for it, and we’ve earned the right to be there and have been working really, really hard.”