At Georgia Tech, ‘women who are so amazing’ complete banner year

The Georgia Tech volleyball team celebrates its second-round NCAA Tournament win over Western Kentucky on Dec. 4, 2021, at O'Keefe Gymnasium. It was a momentous year for women’s teams at Tech, accomplishments that served as something of a festive prelude to the marking of the 50th anniversary of Title IX this month. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

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The Georgia Tech volleyball team celebrates its second-round NCAA Tournament win over Western Kentucky on Dec. 4, 2021, at O'Keefe Gymnasium. It was a momentous year for women’s teams at Tech, accomplishments that served as something of a festive prelude to the marking of the 50th anniversary of Title IX this month. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

There may be no bigger supporter of Georgia Tech’s volleyball team than softball coach Aileen Morales. Just ask Morales, a self-described super fan whose exuberance at home matches at O’Keefe Gymnasium quite fits in with the raucous atmosphere.

“I have to cool it down because I’m like, ‘Oh, wait, I work here,’” Morales said.

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Hired in 2017, Morales has witnessed the evolution of coach Michelle Collier’s team from a sub-.500 team into an Elite Eight unit this past fall. Morales also has had the unique vantage point of being a suitemate of Collier’s in the Edge Center.

“So I’ve had great conversations with Michelle,” Morales said. “So to see how much she’s done with that program and to see that success – our players are friends with those players – that winning bleeds into everybody. We say we want to step up, too.”

Morales’ team had its own breakthrough, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. They contributed to a momentous year for women’s teams at Tech, accomplishments that served as something of a festive prelude to the marking of the 50th anniversary of Title IX this month. Women may make up 40% of the student body at Tech, and Yellow Jackets women’s teams often compete away from the lights cast on the football and men’s basketball teams, but there’s little arguing with the results.

“It's been great. They're amazing at their profession, but they really have a passion for what they do and for leading young women, and it's really cool to be surrounded by that."

- Tech volleyball coach Michelle Collier, on fellow coaches including Aileen Morales and Nell Fortner

“It’s just cool to be at a school that is so majority men … and then to have all our women be so successful in school in a male-centered world and then kick butt when it comes to our sports, also,” said former Tech distance runner Nicole Fegans, a singular butt kicker whose record-breaking college career ended at the NCAA track and field championship earlier this month.

Fegans was part of a historic accomplishment for women’s teams at Tech. Counting the track and field program (cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track) as one team, all six of the school’s women’s teams advanced a team or athletes to NCAA championship competitions. It’s a first in school history for women’s teams. (Counting football bowl games as a somewhat equivalent measure of accomplishment as an NCAA championship appearance, it has been accomplished on the men’s side, most recently in the 2009-10 academic year.)

Both the volleyball and basketball teams have made back-to-back NCAA trips, which the former hadn’t done since making five consecutive appearances from 2000-04 and the latter since a string of six trips in a row from 2007-12. The volleyball team’s Elite Eight appearance was its first since 2003 and the second in team history. On the same Dec. 9 day that the Elite Eight berth was earned, coach Nell Fortner’s basketball team ended Connecticut’s 240-game win streak against unranked opponents with a 57-44 win over the Huskies at McCamish Pavilion.

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Both teams were powered by two of the premier athletes in their sports. Julia Bergmann was named the ACC’s Volleyball Player of the Year and a first-team All-American (joining teammate and fellow Brazilian national Mariana Brambilla). Lorela Cubaj was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year for a second year in a row and was a second-round pick in the WNBA draft.

Coach Rodney Harmon’s tennis team qualified for its 22nd consecutive NCAA berth. Two separate doubles teams – Carol Lee/Kate Sharabura and Kylie Bilchev/Ava Hrastar – earned All-American status. Along the way to advancing to the NCAA Tournament, the softball team defeated Georgia 12-3 in Athens, a mercy-rule victory that ended a 13-game losing streak to the Bulldogs.

Camryn Hidalgo completed her career as arguably the most accomplished female diver in school history while earning a mechanical-engineering degree. The butt-kicking Fegans finished her five seasons at Tech as a five-time All-American and a three-time ACC champion, and with nine school records to her name and the distinction as the best female distance runner in school history.

“It’s just really cool to be surrounded by women who are so amazing,” Fegans said. “You go in the training room, and it’s like, ‘Oh, well, that girl was on the Brazilian national team. This girl is also on the Brazilian volleyball team. Oh, this girl made it to Olympic trials.’ It’s just stuff like that. ‘This other girl has done all this in the ACC.’ You just go down the list, and everyone is so impressive.”

A similar connection binds the coaches. Collier said that she likes to share ideas with Morales and that Fortner “is always somebody that has always been very open to conversation as well.” An unexpected meeting in a hallway can yield a pat on the back or offer of support.

“It’s been great,” Collier said. “They’re amazing at their profession, but they really have a passion for what they do and for leading young women, and it’s really cool to be surrounded by that.”

Morales said that head-coaches meetings led by athletic director Todd Stansbury provide their own fuel.

“He’s giving shout-outs and updates on where people are,” she said. “And it’s like, if you’re not the one getting updates and getting shout-outs, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to step it up.’”

That’s the environment that Stansbury has sought to put in place. Last year, eight teams (men’s and women’s) advanced to NCAA competitions (not counting swimming and diving or track and field, for which athletes qualify individually), which was the most since 2009-10. There were just two in 2017-18, Stansbury’s first full year.

The expectations that coaches and athletes hold for themselves “get elevated when, everywhere you look, people are going to postseasons or they’re competing for championships or competing at the highest level of the ACC, and it becomes contagious,” he said.

Of course, many Jackets fans are most focused on the inability of the department’s most prominent teams – football and men’s basketball – to attain the heights of many of their colleagues in the Edge Center. Stansbury acknowledged that “that’s not a place that you feel comfortable because ultimately, we’re in the winning business, and those are our marquee sports, so you really have to be focused on what do we need to do to get better, to flip the switch to put ourselves in a better position. I feel like we’re doing that, but you definitely don’t feel like you’ve arrived.”

Regardless, in a realm that ideally would carry as much weight, Tech may be positioned for an unprecedented era on the women’s side. Tech has fielded nationally competitive teams in its four most supported women’s sports – volleyball, basketball, tennis and softball (the track and field and swimming and diving teams are not fully funded from a scholarship standpoint) – at various points, particularly over the past 30 years. But not simultaneously, as those four teams may be poised to do now.

Tech is not so far removed from a four-year stretch (2014-15 through 2017-18) in which the volleyball, basketball and softball teams didn’t make the NCAAs once.

“I think it’s been definitely a historical moment for women’s athletics at Georgia Tech,” Collier said. “I think that they’re finding a way to really be relevant at the national level and, I think, show that our environment here can actually help us get to a higher level.”

In a broader perspective, Collier and her colleagues will continue to seek to advance the progress made by Title IX legislation.

“We’re very grateful for Title IX and the opportunities it has created for women’s sports,” Collier said. “But I do think we’re still a long ways away from where we need to be, where women just (have) equal opportunities when it comes to facilities and coaches and training and even recovery, like all these things that are part of their day-to-day. I think it’s a continuing evolution.”