Georgia volleyball thrives in shadow of football team

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

ATHENS — Self-awareness is one of Tom Black’s many strengths. That was evident when he took his spot at the dais at the front of Georgia football’s team meeting room at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall earlier this week.

Reporters were gathered there to hear from Kirby Smart, coach of the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs, in advance of Saturday’s SEC Championship game against LSU. Black was there to talk about something else.

“I’m sure you all are wondering what the volleyball coach is doing here,” Black said, grinning. “Thanks for letting me speak.”

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Black deserved to be heard. In addition to having his women’s volleyball team in the NCAA Tournament for the second time since 2019, the Bulldogs’ coach of the past six years had just been named SEC Coach of the Year.

Georgia volleyball will open tournament play at 6 p.m. Thursday against No. 8-seed Towson at Gregory Gym on the University of Texas campus. The victor will advance to face the winner of top-seeded Texas and Fairleigh Dickinson at 9 p.m. Friday.

The Bulldogs earned their berth – their 11th all time – on the strength of a 22-7 season and a third-place finish in the SEC (13-5).

“I’m proud of the girls,” Black said. “When I came here, the team had won one conference game the two years prior. We got to the tournament in three years, then COVID came, the wheels fell off and we had to do a rebuild on a rebuild. I’d never been part of that before, and we all learned a lot. But I’m super proud of the girls for sticking together and building through this.”

Thursday’s NCAA match will be only the 16th all time for the Bulldogs. They have not won a postseason match since 1995.

But that was then, and this is now. Georgia earned its way into the field by distinguishing itself as one of the more dominant teams in an always-loaded SEC. The Bulldogs are led by senior outside hitter Kacie Evans and junior middle blocker Sophie Fischer, each of whom earned All-SEC honors in 2022.

Evans was the first Bulldog to be named a two-time All-SEC player since Valentina Gonzalez in 2009 and 2010. She finished fifth in the SEC with 3.97 kills per set against conference opponents. At the service line, her 0.41 aces per set ranked second in the league, while her 4.76 points per set was fourth.

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Fischer finished second in the league with a 1.57 blocks per set average in SEC competition, and her 108 total blocks led the SEC. Her 15 blocks against South Carolina on Sept. 28 was a season high in the SEC and also set a program record at UGA.

The problem, as has been the case for a while, is anybody noticing the Bulldogs’ good work. As a fall sport, volleyball operates almost in a vacuum from Georgia football. Almost all of the focus and attention is cast on the gridiron Dogs, who are ranked No. 1 in the country and are seeking to become the first repeat national champion in football since Alabama in 2012.

“Obviously, we’re beyond excited with how the football team is doing, and they’re going to continue to be great,” said Black, a native Californian who starred in volleyball at UC-San Diego. “That drives the train, obviously. But I also know volleyball is the biggest (women’s) team sport in America, and it’s the only sport among women’s sports that continues to grow, as it has over the last three years. … So, I think the women’s volleyball community needs to support the sport better, and I also think this sport deserves more attention. I haven’t encountered anyone yet who has gone to a volleyball game and thought it was boring. It’s an exciting product.”

Meantime, Georgia is just having to win as much as it can. And it has been doing that a lot.

The 22 regular-season wins this year are the most for the program since 2013. The 13 conference victories set a program record.

Georgia finished third in the SEC, the best finish by the Bulldogs since 1995. This is the third time Georgia has eclipsed 20 wins in Black’s six seasons in Athens. The Bulldogs earned four wins over AVCA Top 50 teams, including a sweep of then-No. 11 Florida in Gainesville. The Bulldogs finished the season winning 10 of their final 12 matches.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have moved their matches from the relative isolation of the Ramsey Student Center, where they train, to Stegeman Coliseum. There, more and more students are being turned on to the sport, which is fast-moving and exciting.

At the center of it all is Black. Not only has he been able to recognize talent and procure the best players to come play for the Bulldogs, but he knows what to do with them once they get to Athens.

This year, Georgia was picked to finish ninth by the league’s head coaches before the season after finishing 12-17 (7-9 SEC). Now the Bulldogs are looking to double that win total as Black became only the second UGA volleyball coach to be named SEC Coach of the Year since the program’s inaugural coach, Sid Feldman, won it in 1985.

“Yeah, he’s OK,” joked Evans, who was a 16-year-old in Wadsworth, Ohio, when she committed to play for Black. “My first conversation with him, he said, ‘You need to get better.’ And I did that and became Freshman of the Year. He and I had tough conversations, and he pushed me through. I look up to him a lot for the strength and the poise that he has.”

Black had to fight back emotions when asked what it meant to be recognized as SEC Coach of the Year. But he quickly turned the conversation back to the task at hand. That’s to beat Towson and get the Bulldogs back on the winning track in the NCAA Tournament.

“They always had a lot of success and dominated their conference,” Black said of the Tigers. “They’re really deadly on the left. They have two lefts that can score, but they’re really balanced on offense and they serve tough. For us, it’s going to be another competitive, tough match. But let’s go!”

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