But the casual chatter quickly gave way to intensity during the game: loud cheers of “let’s go Tech,” the student section clapping along to “Seven Nation Army,” Marching Band pounding their drum and the boom of “Point Tech!” when the Jackets scored.
“It’s just a really good crowd,” middle blocker Afedo Manyang said. “If you’re the opponent, it feels like everyone’s on top of you. For us, everyone’s with us and doing whatever they can to help us.”
A Tech volleyball game at O’Keefe Gymnasium may be the hottest ticket in Atlanta sports. The Jackets have sold out 28 straight games and 35 of their last 40 home matches since 2021. Getting season tickets can be challenging as well, as 2023 season tickets sold out the same day they were released. The gym seats 1,200.
The environment has proven to be a killer home advantage for Tech, which is 54-8 in its last 62 matches at O’Keefe.
The venue is exclusive to the volleyball program, an unusual true home venue in a sport where most other Division I teams share arenas with their school’s basketball programs. The gym was previously O’Keefe High School’s gymnasium in the 1950s before Tech acquired it in the 1960s. Several club sports used the venue before it became the home of Tech volleyball in 1995.
Recent updates, like installing a video board and air conditioning, have brought O’Keefe into the 21st century. But some of its historical quirks — the tightly-packed rows of bleachers, the minimal space between the court and fans, the poor acoustics — are what makes it a vibrant atmosphere.
“I feel like fans are just as much part of the team,” Pete D’Amico, father of setter Bella D’Amico, said.
Mitzi D’Amico, his wife, said the small size of the venue means all the parents attending can easily see each other and feed on each other’s energy. She and Pete were among the loudest fans at an Oct. 20 match against Duke, starting “Yellow Jackets” cheers and proudly hoisting a card poster after aces while yelling, “ace, ace, ace.”
The closeness is part of what makes the atmosphere special, coach Michelle Collier said.
“It’s really cool (for fans) to be that close and see how physical, how intense matches are,” Collier said. “Volleyball is a fast match, an explosive match. Being able to see it (closely) creates a great excitement.”
Key to the noise level: the Georgia Tech Marching Band, which plays classics ranging from “Timewarp” from the Rocky Horror Show to Tech’s fight song between sets and after the game. The drum ringing out after each “Point Tech” is an O’Keefe tradition. The band members also cheer for Tech and yell “Woah!” at the opposing team’s servers, trying to rattle them.
Manyang, a transfer from Texas Christian, said she was annoyed when some Big 12 school bands heckled her as an opponent. But she loves watching Tech’s band do it, saying they understand the game and do their best to distract opposing servers.
Fans boost the volume, too, like when they start impromptu “Let’s go Tech” or “Yellow Jackets” cheers and sing along to the pop hits played between points, ranging from Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”
The building’s low ceilings can sometimes prompt delays, like on a play against when Pitt sent the ball to the ceiling out of bounds and then attempted to keep it in play.
Fans tend to start cheers during longer breaks like time-outs or challenge calls, which Bella D’Amico said are among her favorite moments in O’Keefe. They keep the team rowdy and energized during lulls, she said.
The noise level frequently reaches more than 100 decibels during matches at O’Keefe, which can sometimes make it challenging for players and coaching staff to communicate.
Some opponents huddle in the hallway to hear each other. The Jackets used to go to a back room in between the second and third sets, when the band plays the traditional “You’ve Said It All” (often called the Buzzweiser song). But Bella D’Amico said the team has gotten used to the volume, choosing to yell and huddle closely.
“I can’t count the amount of times I’ve lost my voice after a weekend in O’Keefe,” she said.
The gym grew so noisy during a game against then-No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 3 that she said she felt the noise vibrating in her chest when serving on one of the match’s final points.
Pitt coach Dan Fisher called O’Keefe a “challenging” atmosphere to play in and as loud as it gets in the ACC. He and his staff have to communicate via whiteboard rather than talking during matches at Tech.
Collier, who has coached at Tech since 2014, said the atmosphere has built up over the past four years. This has coincided with significant success for the program, which has consistently been ranked in the top 20 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings since 2021.
Performance has been a factor, but Collier said fans will return regardless of the previous match’s result.
Fans also tend to be loud no matter the score. The crowd started “Let’s go Tech” cheers when the Jackets were down 7-0 against Pitt on Nov. 10. When Tech was down by 12 points on set point during the first set against Pitt, students still stood and the bench clapped.
Support in those moments is valuable, libero Paola Pimentel said.
“Sometimes we might be behind on the score and make a good play, and everyone gets fired up,” Pimentel said. “We just hear the crowd and that can change the whole game.”
After tallying a point, players often wear joyful expressions alongside the fans. Jumping, embracing and cheering “yes!” are common for the Jackets after scoring. The bench gets in on it as well, high fiving players who exit the game and clapping even when a play doesn’t go Tech’s way.
Manyang said the crowd joins in as the team gets excited about blocks, kills and hustle plays, and is “non-stop.”
Players’ celebrations go both ways, like when Pitt players shook their heads and wagged their fingers when Tech sent a ball out of bounds. Fisher also feels like fans feed off players’ celebrations.
“Volleyball, in some ways, is like watching a slam dunk every time,” Fisher said. “It’s a sport where athletes can show emotion, and in some sports, there’s not really a release.”
Another draw for some Jackets’ fans: supporting strong female athletes.
Season ticket holder Steve Sharp has a daughter who attended Tech in the 1990s. A professor told her that she was taking up space meant for a male student. Sharp has been committed to supporting women at Tech ever since.
“They play with heart,” Sharp said.
Tech home crowds feature fans of all ages, including many parents toting along young children. Collier noted the young girls and families coming to the games, saying her players’ level of intensity and buy-in makes them good role models.
The raucous environment at O’Keefe has turned into a powerful recruitment tool for Tech. Although Pimentel was unable to visit on a gameday, she got an ACC Network log-in from a friend and followed the Jackets on TV.
“I was watching the games and it felt so good — the vibes I got from the team, the band, everyone that was cheering,” Pimentel said. “When I was considering schools, that really made me choose Georgia Tech.”
Collier said the program tries to schedule official visits on game days because O’Keefe may appear less flashy than other venues. When it comes to game day, Collier said the gym is unique among ACC and NCAA home courts.
Tech is one of several programs helping fuel the growth of college volleyball nationwide. Nebraska volleyball, long an NCAA powerhouse, made headlines when more than 92,000 red-clad fans crowded into Memorial Stadium in August to watch the Huskers play Omaha. The event set a new record for the most-attended women’s sporting event in history.
Tech’s “bigger” venue: McCamish Pavilion, where it has played twice. The Jackets most recently competed there on Sept. 15, falling to Georgia in front of a program-record 5,303 fans.
Would the Jackets consider playing in Bobby Dodd Stadium?
“Why not, right?” Collier said. “But Nebraska is a completely different beast. We’ve got to continue to grow. We’ve got to have a couple more matches in McCamish, and we’ve got to start winning those matches.”
Even as attendance increases nationwide, Tech was just one of eight programs nationally to average attendance at or over 100% capacity in 2023 (as of Oct. 19).
The Jackets wrapped up their regular season in O’Keefe on Sunday, but may have a chance to host home matches later this month depending on their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA will reveal the postseason bracket on Nov. 26.
No matter if Tech hosts in O’Keefe again in 2023 or won’t return until 2024, fans can expect the same vibrant environment each match: Zombie Nation blasting before first serve, players screaming with excitement, the student section swaying to “Swag Surfin,’” Buzz working his way through the crowd and the band filling the building with sound.
Few women’s athletes ever get to experience that type of home atmosphere. Collier called it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for her athletes — one she wants to keep building on.
“Our goal is to one day win the national championship, win ACC championships,” Collier said. “We can’t do that if we don’t have people behind us making our game nights a huge home court advantage.”