The regular season for Georgia Tech’s volleyball team went well, but not as well as planned. The intended capture of the Yellow Jackets’ first ACC championship since 2004 eluded them, as Tech finished third behind two teams in the top 10, co-champions Louisville and Pittsburgh.
“Maybe we didn’t reach it this time, but it’s not over yet,” All-American outside hitter Julia Bergmann said Wednesday on a videoconference call with media. “We have a lot of games to go.”
The Jackets begin another pursuit Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. A No. 5 seed, Tech plays Horizon League champion Wright State at 5 p.m. in Milwaukee (ESPN-Plus). Making its third tournament appearance in a row, Tech’s aspirations are high. The Jackets reached the quarterfinals last season for only the second time in team history.
“I mean, winning the NCAA Tournament, that’s the goal,” Bergmann said. “Just playing good volleyball, just showing how much the program has evolved in these past years.”
Being in the top 10 of the preseason AVCA coaches poll and remaining there for much of the season has lent the season a different sort of weight for Tech.
“We were no longer the team that was the underdog or surprising people with our results,” coach Michelle Collier said. “We’re the team that people were chasing, that they highlighted on their calendar and became a huge win on their calendar if they were able to get us. I think that that changed a little bit. I think that we learned as a program what it takes to be at this level, what it takes to be in this role of being one of the best teams in the country and people being prepared to play you and give you their best every night. But it was exciting. I think our team really responded to that.”
Collier uses the maxim “pressure is a privilege” and said her team has accepted and tried to utilize the heightened expectations. As the Jackets have transitioned from a team on the rise – before the start of their three-year NCAA streak, they hadn’t made it into the field since 2009 – to a team that opponents gun for, Collier has sought to keep her team on an aggressive edge. At practice, Collier has tried to raise the intensity level to keep players from going through the motions.
“I think they have a good picture and a good feel of what it’s like when we’re at our best, and I’m sure they’ll be ready to put that forward (Thursday),” she said.
After earning ACC Player of the Year honors a year ago, Bergmann has received heavy attention from opponents set on limiting her powerful game. It has been common for Bergmann to face two blockers at the net when she had the ball set to her, sometimes three.
“Just playing here for four seasons, people know what your shots are, people know where you’re going to swing and they know you’re going to be set at certain moments, but I think it was just a great challenge for me personally, having to elevate my game every time I step on the court, knowing they’re going to come after me,” she said. “So I think it was a really challenging season but a really good season, too, to get more opportunities and to grow as a player, also having to find solutions that usually I didn’t need to find.”
Even still, Bergmann ranks in the top five nationally in kills and points per set. She was named first-team All-ACC for the third consecutive season. Middle blocker Breland Morrissette joined her on the first team, with middle blocker Erin Moss, setter Bella D’Amico and outside hitter Bianca Bertolino being named to the second team.
While Bergmann has a fifth season of eligibility at her disposal, she has decided that this will be her final run. Bergmann played this past summer for the Brazilian national team and has professional aspirations. Bergmann, whose career at Tech truly ranks among the more accomplished and impactful of any Jackets athlete in any sport, is seeing her time nearing its close.
“I try not to think about it because it’s sad,” she said. “It’s been a great four years, a great four seasons with this team, so I think I just want to enjoy the moment, I just want to enjoy these last games and just being able to give my all. Now it’s the final stretch. I’m sure it’s going to be good, and I just want to be able to give the most and give back to what people have given me with this program.”
Should the Jackets advance past Wright State, which has won 23 consecutive matches and is making its third NCAA trip in four seasons, they’ll face the Marquette-Ball State winner Friday for a spot in the round of 16.
“I think one of our goals is to play really good volleyball and fight and play with heart and leave it all out on the court,” Morrissette said. “I think if we do that, I think we can be, I don’t want to say happy, but with whatever comes from that, we’ll know that we left it all and we gave it our all.”
While the regular season didn’t reach the heights that Tech hoped, Collier believes it still has prepped her team for what’s ahead. Over Tech’s final six games, the Jackets played five against teams in the NCAA field – Florida State twice, Miami, Pitt and Louisville. The Cardinals are a No. 1 seed, Pitt is a No. 2 seed and Miami and FSU are No. 7 seeds.
Tech was 2-3 in the five matches, sweeping the Seminoles. The losses to Pitt and Louisville both were tough five-setters. As Collier sees it, the stretch reinforced her team’s confidence that it can compete with the best teams in the country and compelled players to reach for a higher level, one that they’ll have to play at to advance in the bracket.
“But obviously in the tournament now, we’re just trying to do what we did all year,” Collier said. “We played good volleyball. We really just have to be fresh and focused and being able to take it one match at a time, understand that it’s a different feel, a different pressure we just have to normalize that and do what we’ve done all year – compete.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com