Julia Bergmann leads Georgia Tech into volleyball Sweet 16

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Julia Bergmann grew up on two continents with different languages and cultures, but nothing prepared her for Waffle House. Georgia Tech’s star outside hitter recalled her first visit to the staple of Southern dining, courtesy of team operations director Jill Jameson.

“I was like, waffles for lunch?” Bergmann said. “It was so weird to me.”

It was among the first of many hurdles that Bergmann, who grew up in Germany but moved to Brazil when she was 11, has cleared successfully in her three years at Tech. Certainly at the college level and perhaps beyond, if there are other athletes on Tech’s campus with a higher ceiling in their respective sports, there can’t be many. And likely none who can speak four languages and are majoring in physics. Her skill (in volleyball) will be put on display Thursday, when the Jackets, seeded eighth nationally, play ninth-seeded Ohio State in Louisville, Ky., in their third Sweet 16 match in team history.

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“I think she’s still got tons to get better and improve, and it’s exciting, because I think, in my opinion, she’s one of the best players in the country,” Tech coach Michelle Collier said. “She’s very well-rounded, she can do a lot of the phases of the game really well, and I think a lot of that stuff just comes naturally.”

It doesn’t require an expert’s eye to figure out why Bergmann was named ACC player of the year, Tech’s first since 2004. Start with a 6-foot-5 frame, add in leaping ability, a well-honed sense of timing and a powerful arm swing, tools that have enabled her to lead the ACC in kills per set (4.6), fourth most among power-conference players. Having a talented set of teammates, including three who also made All-ACC (right-side hitter Mariana Brambilla, setter Matti McKissock and middle blocker Breland Morrissette), helps, too. But Bergmann’s serving, passing and defense at the net also have helped lift the Jackets to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since a five-year run from 2000-04. She is a focal point of Collier’s game-planning.

“We do a lot of our strategy around what her strengths are and try to help the team that way,” Collier said. “So she does play a pivotal role in that because a lot of our decisions are, what do we need here and how do we get our best player to be in the position to execute?”

It was Collier who recruited Bergmann out of Brusque, Brazil. The daughter of a German professor mother and a computer-engineer father, Bergmann had opportunities to head down a path to play professionally – she was the youngest member of the Brazil national team that played in the 2019 Pan American Games before her freshman year. But she also liked the idea of continuing her studies while, in her words, “your brain is fresh,” and still training to play professionally.

“Just having something to rely on after you’re done playing was really important to me,” she said. “But it’s not very common in Brazil.”

The opportunity at Tech was ready-made. Bergmann was friends with Brambilla from playing together on a Brazilian junior-national team. Collier herself is from Brazil and also came to the U.S. to play college volleyball at South Florida. Assistant coach Claudio Pinheiro has extensive experience coaching with Brazil’s national team, including three Olympics.

“(Brambilla) was happy here, and just being able to play in the U.S. – another country, another culture – really interested me,” Bergmann said.

Said Collier, “We always knew Julia was a next-level player. She’s just one of those athletes that’s going to have a great future ahead of her, and we were excited to help her get to her goals.”

Adjusting to American culture and taking classes in a third language – she spoke German as a child and then learned Portuguese when her family moved to Brazil to learn the language and culture, and she also can speak Spanish – was a challenge, but she has adapted. She has learned, among other things, that she can’t wear red, the color of archrival Georgia.

“That was very weird to me,” Bergmann said.

Having a Brazilian teammate helped her navigate life in a foreign country.

“She saved me at the beginning, just taking me places and showing me everything,” Bergmann said of Brambilla.

The two are a part of an active group of Brazilian students at Tech. The success that both have had may lead for more to follow their path.

“I think it changed a lot, and a lot more girls want to come to the U.S., too,” Bergmann said.

Bergmann can take them to Waffle House, or her favorite American eatery, Chick-fil-A. Her go-to is the deluxe sandwich with lemonade and fries. (For a taste of home, she visits the Rio Steakhouse and Bakery in Cobb County.)

If Tech defeats Ohio State on Thursday, the likely next matchup is with top-seeded Louisville. The Cardinals took both regular-season matches from the Jackets in two 3-0 sweeps, although both were closely contested.

“We’re so close to getting a national championship,” Bergmann said. “I think we all believe in it. That’s the thing about our team. We know that we can get there. If we play well, no one can stop us. I’m just very confident in our abilities and very excited.”

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