Georgia Tech’s volleyball team aspires to next level after breakthrough

Georgia Tech volleyball coach Michelle Collier experienced something new when listening to a Sirius XM broadcast in mid-August previewing the ACC season. Players from around the league were asked which team they were eager to play. The Yellow Jackets, who made their second consecutive NCAA Tournament last year and welcome visitors to one of the more raucous environments to be found in the Southeast, were a common response. In her ninth season at Tech, the Jackets have become a marked team.

“I think that’s an honor for us,” Collier said. “We want the best competition. We want to be facing people that are excited to play us, that are going to challenge us, because that’s what we ask of ourselves when we’re in our gym, to compete and get better.”

As Collier sees it, and as external expectations indicate, her team is striving to attain a new plateau. Having made the Elite 8 for the first time since 2003 and the second time in team history while returning a group that includes reigning ACC player of the year Julia Bergmann, Tech is trying to claim its spot among the game’s elite.

“I think that our program was able to achieve some new heights last year, and our goal is to sustain some of those accomplishments,” Collier said. “We understand the difficulty that is in front of us, but I think I have a great group, a lot of depth, more than we have ever had, I think, in our gym.”

Tech’s standing was affirmed by its being ranked ninth in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, the team’s highest ever in a preseason poll. While it won’t secure the Jackets any victories – Tech did start the season by defeating Ole Miss and No. 17 Illinois at the Ole Miss Invitational this weekend – it does indicate how Collier’s team is perceived by its peers.

“I think even after the 2020 season, when we made it to the tournament, we still kind of had something to prove, because people were like, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe that was just a one-year thing,’” said middle blocker Breland Morrisette, a second-team All-ACC selection last year. “So I think last season, it was really about, ‘We’re for real. Put some respect on our name. We can do it.’”

Besides its Elite 8 finish, the Jackets completed the season with a 26-6 record and took fourth in the ACC behind champion Louisville, Pittsburgh and Miami. Both the Cardinals and Panthers reached the Final Four in a first for the ACC. The Jackets returned four of six starters from that team, losing All-American right-side hitter Mariana Brambilla and first-team All-ACC setter Matti McKissock.

Junior Isabella D’Amico has taken the place of McKissock, and Laura Fischer started the season in Brambilla’s spot. But Collier went to the transfer portal to bring in experienced talent, notably outside hitter Tamara Otene, who was the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year last season at Illinois State.

“I think she’s going to do great things in our conference and just with our team,” Collier said.

The team’s objective is the ACC championship, which will require them unseating Louisville and Pittsburgh, both ranked ahead of Tech. Tech has a history of success – the Jackets have won ACC regular-season or tournament championships seven times – but last raised a trophy in 2004.

It’s hardly beyond the scope of possibility for Tech to finish the season as national champions, which would be a first for the volleyball program, only the sixth overall in school history in any sport and the third since 1952 (after football in 1990 and women’s tennis in 2007).

“No one has ever done it before (in volleyball), so I think it’s very fun to be able to get to that point,” Bergmann said. “We have the team to do it.”

A senior, Bergmann has been a foundational piece of the Jackets’ rise from middle-of-the-pack ACC team to potential conference champion. Bergmann spent the summer playing with the Brazilian national team, starting on a roster that includes professionals and Olympians and helping Brazil earn silver in the Volleyball Nations League tournament. Bergmann returned a better player having competed against the world’s best, but Collier wants more from her star than increased production.

“She’s got to come here and she’s got to make everybody around her be good, to help her be good, to help her continue to get better and to challenge her, and I think for us, for our team, it’s great,” Collier said.

Collier’s vision for the season extends beyond the court. The Jackets will play their Oct. 9 home game against rival Pitt at McCamish Pavilion, the first time a volleyball match will have been held there.

“I think that game in McCamish is just a chance for us to really see how well we can draw,” Morrissette said. “We always sell out O’Keefe (Gymnasium), so I think it’ll be cool to experience playing in a big arena and just opening it up to more of our fans.”

The Jackets sold out 1,200-seat O’Keefe Gymnasium in 11 of 15 home dates last season. Tech’s home average (1,018) last season was 39th nationally and third in the ACC, higher rankings than its campus counterparts in football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball. The team sold 501 season tickets for this season after selling 226 last year and 111 in 2019 (attendance was restricted in the 2020 season, played in the spring of 2021).

“We always talk about honoring and growing the game, and I think this is part of it,” Collier said. “And I also think this will continue to be the next step for our program. We are going to need a bigger gym. We are going to need a bigger arena if we want to be a top-10 program and compete against the best programs in the country.”

Collier, who inherited a team that had made one NCAA Tournament in the previous nine seasons, had her contract extended two years, through 2026. It’s the reward for becoming a team that is now being pursued.

“We talk about pressure being a privilege, and I think it’s a different kind of pressure that we have now, but that we’re ready for, and that we really believe that we belong there,” Collier said. “We’re doing some great things at a very high level in our gym, and we’re going to keep competing with the best.”

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