Georgia Tech’s NCAA volleyball berth long time coming

Georgia Tech outside hitter Julia Bergmann was named first-team All-ACC, her second such honor in as many seasons, on April 5, 2021. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech outside hitter Julia Bergmann was named first-team All-ACC, her second such honor in as many seasons, on April 5, 2021. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: ANTHONY_MCCLELLAN

Credit: ANTHONY_MCCLELLAN

When the moment finally arrived, Georgia Tech volleyball coach Michelle Collier wasn’t entirely ready. Sunday afternoon, the 48-team field for the NCAA Tournament was revealed, and the first half of the bracket had been announced with no mention of the Yellow Jackets.

On top of the fact that no ACC teams were on that side of the bracket, a number of bubble teams had already been placed there. Could there be room for four ACC teams, including the bubble-sitting Jackets, in the final 24 spots, or would they be left out for the second tournament in a row?

Amidst this conversation, the selection show on ESPNU returned from commercial and, before the chattering could stop, there was Tech, the first name revealed in the segment.

“It was like, Wow,” Collier told the AJC. “So it was awesome.”

Unbridled joy and excitement would be another apt description, as captured in a video of the moment that was shared on Twitter – shrieking, jumping, hugging and hands over mouths as the team celebrated in the Callaway Club at McCamish Pavilion. It wasn’t without reason that Collier, asked how big of an accomplishment it was for the Jackets to make the tournament for the first time since 2009, responded “huge.”

“I think that from day once since I got the job (in 2014), that was the main goal – to be able to bring this program back to the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “Just super proud of the process that we’ve been through – all our recruiting classes and every year we kept getting better and we’re getting better and better people who are around the program who are really invested in the program, from the administration to our strength coach, our trainer, everybody was super invested in just getting better. It’s been pretty cool to see the vision come through.”

Tech will play Lipscomb in a first-round match on April 14 in Omaha, Neb., where the entire tournament will be played. The winner gets Minnesota, the No. 3 overall seed. Once an NCAA Tournament regular – eight appearances between 1994 and 2004 – the 2009 appearance was Tech’s lone trip from 2005 through 2019.

Collier, hired from Jacksonville in 2014, had a vision for Tech – finish in the top five in the ACC, be ranked in the top 25 and make it to the tournament. In her seventh year, after near misses in 2016 and 2019, the Jackets finally made it into the tournament at 13-4 (all against ACC competition), good for fourth in the conference and a No. 23 ranking going into this past weekend.

“This group has been working really hard to get our program back on the map,” Collier said. “Not only this group, but teams that have come before them, as well. It’s been a long process.”

There’s little reason to think it can’t happen next season. Of the eight players Collier has relied on most – including All-ACC selections Julia Bergmann and Mariana Brambilla (first team) and Matti McKissock (second team) – all are juniors or younger.

“Our hope is that now when we’ve gotten here, I feel like we’ve really laid a strong foundation for the future, and Georgia Tech’s going to be one of the best teams in the country for very many years now,” she said.

The breakthrough has happened in unique and trying circumstances, just as it did for both Tech basketball teams. The volleyball was split into fall and spring seasons. The ACC was among four conferences that played fall seasons, committing to them before the NCAA announced the decision to have the championship played in the spring. Tech played eight matches in five weeks in the fall and has come back with nine more matches in the spring, starting in early March.

“It’s a long season, and you can see it at some points in the season mentally and physically,” Collier said. “Our report from our trainer is usually a lot longer than it has been.”

There has been hardship for Collier’s team as there has been for any team at any level venturing to play amid the pandemic. Team-bonding activities – the sort that could help a team stay connected while playing through a long season rife with complications – have been limited. The two-season split has been a challenge for the team’s academic scheduling strategy, in which players typically load up on tougher classes in the spring when they’re out of season. Tech’s two international players, Bergmann and Brambilla, both were unable to return home over winter break.

But, they’ve overcome.

“This year, we’re grateful that we’re playing,” Collier said. “We’re grateful that we’re going to have a championship. We’re grateful that we’re in the championship. There’s not too much that we can complain about. there’s been a lot of investment from our administration to get us out there competing, to give us a chance to do that at a high level, so we’re definitely making the most out of it and really focusing more on the good than all the challenges, for sure.”

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