5 things to know about Tech's surging volleyball team

The Georgia Tech volleyball team will play for its first 20-win season since 2009 Friday at 7 p.m. at O’Keefe Gymnasium, part of an important home weekend that includes a Sunday match with Pittsburgh.

The Yellow Jackets have won nine matches in a row, the longest streak at Tech since 2006. Tech is surging behind coach Michelle Collier and a nucleus of five seniors. Here’s five more things you might not have known about the hottest team on campus:

Leading the revival

Collier has effected a considerable turnaround in her third season at Tech following her hire from Jacksonville University. In 2013, the Jackets finished 12-20 with an RPI of No. 162. After the season, coach Tonya Johnson resigned to take an associate head coaching position at Texas, where she had previously worked before coming to Tech in 2009.

Tech finished 13-18 in 2014, Collier’s first season, and then 18-14 last season.

The team set a preseason goal to exceed 20 wins and finish with a top-50 RPI. Going into the weekend, the Jackets are 19-4 with an RPI ranking of 48. The Jackets have eight more matches remaining.

“We’re playing pretty good,” Collier said. “We’ve won nine straight. It’s been a strong few matches for us. We’re top five in the ACC in every statistical category, which shows just how well-rounded our team is offensively and defensively. We’re doing some really good things.”

The five seniors – twin sisters Teegan and Annika Van Gunst, Lauren Pilz, London Ackerman and Rebecca Martin – have figured prominently.

“They have been the heart of this program for a long time as far as playing time on the court and they’re responding really well their last year,” Collier said.

In the family

Collier’s husband, Rafael Silva, is a volunteer assistant coach. Silva, who is also Brazilian, played professionally and coached at the junior and prep level before joining the Tech staff when the school hired Collier. They have two young children, Tais and Rafael.

“For me, it’s a huge advantage because he’s a tremendous coach, was a great player, loves the sport,” Collier said. “So it’s just become a lot easier for us to go home and talk about volleyball and do those things and also have somebody with a different perspective. Personality-wise, we’re very different, so it’s nice to have his side of the perspective in a lot of things.”

Postseason a possibility

An NCAA bid, which would be Tech’s first since 2009, would seem within reach. The four ACC teams that earned NCAA bids last year had 20, 21, 24 and 24 wins going into the tournament, although three of the four had season-ending RPI rankings in the top 30.

Tech is tied for third in the ACC at 10-2 in league play. North Carolina and FSU are tied at 11-1; Tech is tied with Duke at 10-2.

After the Tar Heels lost last weekend, Collier said, “We had a little group chat and said, ‘Hey, this opens up even bigger aspirations and possibilities now.’ So I think we’re re-focusing our goals a little bit. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but I think that we are confident on the talent that we have and what we’re doing as a team and staying driven to get better and make sure that we’re finishing to the best of our abilities.”

A different spin

Collier, who is from Brazil and played professionally around the world, has infused her team with a culture and style that leans to her home country.

“We try to make our players all-around players, make them very comfortable with the game,” she said.

Collier had players watch international matches and pick out a player to study, she said, “to know the sport of volleyball a little more than what we’re doing here.” The project, she said, helped her team learn and understand the game in a different way.

Collier took the team to Brazil this past summer, a trip that included matches and sightseeing. Among other things, Collier said, it gave team members an appreciation of the facilities, training and support that they receive as college athletes.

“That was a huge turning point for us, too, as a team in just how we approach this experience,” Collier said. “I think that has made a big difference in how we’ve played this year as well and just how appreciative we are for the opportunity to play the game, to play the game at this institution and to be able to do it at a very high level.”

Peak performer

The Jackets are led by one of the most accomplished athletes on campus, senior outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst. From Fayetteville, Van Gunst has started since she was a freshman and was named first-team All-ACC last season. She is one of eight players in team history with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs in her career, which reflects her versatility.

“She’s a very impactful player,” Collier said. “I think one of the rare qualities that she has is she plays both sides of the game really well. She’s a great defensive player as well an offensive threat. Nowadays that’s a little more rare to find them.”

Van Gunst, whose twin sister Annika has also been a starter since her freshman season, carries a 3.88 GPA in mechanical engineering.

About the Author

Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech. He started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.AJC Georgia Tech blogGeorgia Tech...