For Georgia Tech athletics, ‘the best year that I can ever remember’

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado holds the winners trophy as he and his teammates celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

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Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado holds the winners trophy as he and his teammates celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Via the wonders of videoconferencing, Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury joined an April meeting of the athletic association board from Omaha, Neb. He was there to support the Yellow Jackets volleyball team, in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

“But not to put any pressure on (baseball coach Danny Hall), I told him that I didn’t want this to be my last trip to Omaha this year,” Stansbury said.

For the uninitiated, Stansbury was not pining for a return trip because he’s a fanboy of billionaire investor (and Omahan) Warren Buffett. Rather, he was referencing Omaha being the annual site of the College World Series.

The Jackets, who play N.C. State on Saturday in an ACC Tournament semifinal, last made the CWS in 2006. Talented but young, Tech won’t be a favorite to make it to Omaha, though it’s not out of the question.

However, after a period of middling results across the Tech athletic department, success has defined the 2020-21 academic year for Jackets teams. Stansbury’s appetite for more can be understood.

“This is the best year that I can ever remember,” said Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler, who, having arrived at the school in 1995, has some perspective. “You wouldn’t have figured that, right, with all that’s going on, but it’s terrific. I think it inspires everybody else that you can do this here. And then other teams have success, and they start pulling for each other. It’s been awesome.”

Assuming Hall’s baseball team earns an NCAA invitation Monday – it would appear all but a lock – that would make eight Jackets teams that have advanced to NCAA postseason events, not counting swimming and diving and track, for which athletes qualify individually. That’s women’s cross country, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, volleyball, golf and baseball.

That will tie the school record set in the 2009-10 academic year for most NCAA Tournament teams in a year. Given that the football-playing Jackets – the team that fans generally follow most closely – also won an ACC championship (later vacated) and played in the Orange Bowl, that year is difficult to surpass from an all-sports standpoint, particularly when comparing it against the 3-7 record that this academic year’s team compiled in coach Geoff Collins’ second season.

Further, four Tech teams (football, women’s tennis, softball and golf) all won ACC titles in 2009-10. With only the baseball team still competing for an ACC title, the only ACC champion for this academic year belongs to coach Josh Pastner’s men’s basketball team. (It is reasonable to argue that league titles are now more difficult to win in the expanded ACC.)

Still, the achievements of Jackets athletes in 2020-21 stand on their own merit, starting with golfer Tyler Strafaci’s U.S. Amateur championship in August, which followed teammate Andy Ogletree’s triumph in 2019. Moses Wright was named ACC player of the year while teammate Jose Alvarado was named the league’s defensive player of the year. Jumper Bria Matthews was named the ACC’s field MVP at the conference outdoor track and field championship for the second time in her career.

Particularly given where many Jackets teams have been in recent years (that is to say, not competing in their respective NCAA championships), and also given the hardships and challenges posed by COVID-19, this has been a year worthy of appreciation.

“At the end of the day, to see our student-athletes having the success they’re having is incredibly gratifying for them and (I) couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve done,” Stansbury said in the same meeting when he espoused his College World Series aspirations.

The successes have set the bar for other teams. Tech baseball captain and shortstop Luke Waddell remembered watching the men’s basketball team win its first ACC title since 1993 after his own team had beaten Pitt the same night.

“So we definitely want to bring back a trophy just like they did,” Waddell said earlier this week. “All sports all across campus have been playing well and doing well in the postseason. We just want to follow suit.”

Seeing coaches and athletes supporting their colleagues at games and matches is common. In a department where most of the athletes share one weight room and cafeteria, friendships between teams is common.

At the baseball team’s final home series against North Carolina last weekend, Pastner attended the Friday night game at Russ Chandler Stadium and was followed the next day by women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner. Collins had the two call plays against each other in the spring game.

“We don’t have all those sports (unlike other schools), so we don’t have 8 million coaches, so you get to be pretty good friends with some of those folks and root for them,” Heppler said. “It’s good.”

For Tech fans, a clan accustomed to heartbreak and gallant efforts in defeat, the memories have been many, such as the women’s basketball team winning its first-round NCAA Tournament over Stephen F. Austin after trailing by 17 points at halftime, the men’s basketball team breaking a 14-game losing streak to Duke or the baseball team beating Georgia in 14 innings for its season sweep of the Bulldogs. While the football team finished 11th in the ACC, the thrilling playmaking of running back Jahmyr Gibbs in particular has whetted appetites for the fall to come.

Linda Greco, a die-hard fan from Woodstock who with her husband, David, has held season tickets for football and both basketball teams and has attended baseball, softball, swimming and diving and volleyball competitions in recent years, has been delighted with how the success has shined a brighter light on all of the teams.

“I get excited for these kids,” she said. “I think it’s been really great that the fan base, or even the fringe fans, can really see just how hard these kids have been working.”

What perhaps has most characterized this academic year’s all-around performance has been the return of multiple teams to national relevance. Men’s basketball (in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010), women’s basketball (2014), volleyball (2009) and men’s tennis (2017) all returned to NCAA postseasons after prolonged absences. The women’s cross country made it for only the fourth time in team history.

In the 2019-20 academic year, no Tech teams made NCAA championships, in no small part because of COVID-19 canceling spring sports. In 2018-19, there were only three, plus the football team’s bowl trip in coach Paul Johnson’s final season. In 2017-18, there were only two NCAA teams (women’s tennis and golf, the two strongest teams on campus).

That year, the department finished 121st in Division I and last among power-conference schools in the Directors’ Cup, a measurement of all-sports performance. However, the cancellations last spring prevented a number of spring-sports teams, namely golf and women’s tennis, from completing what figured to be highly competitive seasons. Likewise, both basketball teams appeared to be on the rise.

“I thought that Georgia Tech was in a pretty good place (before the school year), and I think it showed,” said Steve Zelnak, a major donor. “Everything except football, and I think that will get reversed this coming year. Geoff appears to be very excited; he’s talking about winning now.”

Unsurprisingly, recruiting and development are at the heart of the ascension. Pastner’s identification and development of linchpins Wright and Alvarado is one example. Volleyball coach Michelle Collier, a Brazil native, leveraging her connections in that country to build her roster is another. The women’s cross-country team’s best-ever finishes in the ACC (second) and NCAA (20th) this year were generated by a recruiting class centered around Nicole Fegans, who has set multiple school records and won an ACC title in the 10,000 meters.

Zelnak has seen a change in mentality from the top.

“You have to talk about winning before you win,” he said. “And my view is there’s a lot more focus on it. Todd, when he first came in, he didn’t talk about winning, and now he talks about winning. He gets it.”

Stansbury has tried to serve his coaches by trying to tweak the long-held perception of Tech as an academic thresher, evidenced in graduates saying not that they graduated, but that “I got out.” He repeatedly has preached the idea that athletes can thrive at Tech, not merely survive.

“We want athletes that, they’re excited about that; they’re not afraid of that opportunity,” Collier said. “The pool that we have to pick from, it’s probably smaller than a lot of places, but I feel like that you also get to work with some amazing young people who are really highly driven to do things not only academically, but athletically. It’s just fun to see that.”

One of Tech’s more accomplished athletes is Collier’s outside hitter Julia Bergmann. A first-team All-ACC selection as a freshman and sophomore, Bergmann came to Tech from Brazil and is majoring in physics, despite English being her third language (after Portuguese and German).

“Math is always the same; that’s what I always say,” Bergmann said. “The numbers are the same, so I think that’s not the difficult part. At the beginning, it’s kind of hard to understand, but you get to learn everything.”

To Heppler, the year evokes the legacy of former athletic director Homer Rice, whose coaching hires across the department were instrumental in raising Tech’s level of competitiveness following its entry into the ACC.

“I think there’s a lot of people that coach places where the reason why they have your sport is so that they can have football and basketball,” he said. “I don’t think Georgia Tech athletics is that way. It’s nice to work at a place like that.”

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