ATLANTA, GEORGIA - This summer, as we did last summer, Yellow Jacket Roundup will be taking a ten week hiatus as the summer sports break splits spring from fall and the academic year begins anew. Pretty much the same premise, expect this year, we have a better, and more alliterative name. We can talk
The Year In Review:
The year of the Great Russell Purge started, on a personal note, with me buying three pairs of unused socks and some sweatpants from a rummage sale in the Zelnak locker rooms as I waited for some rain to clear to head up to O’Keefe for a scrimmage volleyball game against Auburn. I feel this is a good encapsulation of the year itself - the game, which they eventually lost, was close, but relatively competitive. But, somehow, it felt like the program has been playing with house money. After an admittedly poor year from top to bottom, having a rising tide, with all ships being lifted, was a welcome change. The positive trend outweighed some of the impurities hiding beneath. Who cares that the socks weren’t great? They were cheap. And the game was entertaining, and they fought the whole way through. So, what did it really matter?
Of course, it does matter. It seems hard to believe that I felt drawn to spending my first day back in Atlanta on a quest to see what the new scoreboard looked like. That’s right, the last of the new scoreboards to make its debut was less than a year ago at the O’Keefe Gymnasium. In that time, we’ve seen so much change happen.
I strive to take a holistic, full-department look at a lot of this, since I’m previewing/retroactively examining each of the non-rev teams, and goodness knows the 100 Days to Kickoff series will bring you everything you wanted and more about the football program, and similar series will eventually come for men’s basketball and baseball as well, but I would be remised not to at least touch on the major events of the past year.
Volleyball, with two first-year standouts in Mariana Brambilla and Mikaila Dowd - wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve typed those two names - joining a core that, though strong, had bottomed out in 2017. They made steps in the right direction, returning to the postseason for the first time in several years - they were snubbed in fall 2016 from the NCAA bracket - albeit in the inaugural NIT-of-volleyball concept. Meanwhile, cross country may not have had the best season on the men’s side, but the women made it to NCAAs for the first time in 18 years, a whole lifetime ago for some of the youngest of the incoming freshmen. They seem to be taking more steps in the right direction. Rounding out the fall slate, football made it back to a bowl, despite taking a heavy loss in Detroit, and losing head man Paul Johnson in the process. Running through the season quickly, Tobias Oliver was electric in a memorable Thursday night in Blacksburg, this after visiting Louisville a few Fridays earlier when they literally got Brian Van Gorder fired (if you haven’t already, please click that link, you’ll thank me later), and electric freshman Juanyeh Thomas essentially turned a hype train of one Ben Tankersley into bonafide stardom. And who can forget pantsing Miami after their players tried to taunt the team as they ran out of the tunnel behind the Ramblin’ Reck, and, when that failed, turning to the students and band? Oh, and the whole Wesley Wells moment. He and America’s favorite thick punter, Pressley Harvin III, blessedly lock down the question marks in the special teams unit for at least two years.
Soon after those teams got underway, the swimming program got their start. The men, lead by the man who is almost certainly already the best swimmer Georgia Tech has ever had, in the decades upon decades of the program, Caio Pumputis, peaked at 19th in the country, before ultimately finishing just inside the top 25 on nationals. In essentially the opposite story of cross country, women’s swimming and diving paled in comparison to the men. Swimming’s recruiting leaves a lot to be desired, but they landed the big fish in Pumputis two years ago. A couple more of those would give Tech the juggernaut the finest aquatics facility in the country deserves. But I can’t see that happening any time soon.
And in basketball, the news was a little less positive. Men’s basketball bottomed out with barely more than a baker’s dozen of wins, including a loss to Gardner Webb, and the women’s team, well, there’s a reason we need a whole article to go into the roller coaster of a season they had.
Tennis, like we’ve recently discussed, had a yin and yang year, with the men taking a sizable step forward, and reeling in a monster recruiting class, to boot, and the women taking a similar sized step back, though, ultimately, the two finished right about in the same spot as one another. If Men’s Head Coach Kenny Thorne keeps taking player development notes from Women’s Head Coach Rodney Harmon, it’ll be exciting to see what steps Cole Gromley and Pablo Schelcher take, let alone newcomers Andres Martin, Keshav Chopra, and Marcus McDaniel, along with Rosie Garcia Gross and Valeriya Deminova from the ladies side, on teams anchored with proven seniors like Carlos Divar and Kenya Jones. And golf, Tech most consistently spectacular team, won their second straight ACC championship, tying for most all time, in record fashion, and made it through their NCAA Regional for the first time in about a half decade, though they didn’t make much noise in the finals. Every starter from that prodigious lineup returns. Connor Howe, Andy Ogletree, Noah Norton, Luke Schneiderjans, and Tyler Strafaci. All five of Coach Bruce Hepler’s men. Meanwhile, softball took another step in the right direction, ratcheting their win total up again as Breanna Roper emerged as one of the best hitters in the conference and fellow sophomore Cameron Stanford and freshman Bailee Zeitler look to be the batting building blocks Coach Aileen Morales is building her team around. And, of course, track and field saw three individuals - Avery Bartlett, Jeanine Williams, and Bria Matthews - turn in stellar results in national competition, but all three depart following this spring.
Baseball peaked at number three in the country this year. They took essentially the same team as last year, subtracted the best player and added a transfer third baseman and a pitcher, and tore the roof off of any expectations we had for them. Well, everyone expect for our very own Akshay Easwaran. It will certainly be difficult to say goodbye to the likes of Kyle McCann and Tristan English. Georgia Tech baseball is changed in a good way for what you and your fellow draftees were able to accomplish in your time on the Flats. First year hitting coach James Ramsey, scion of Florida State baseball and the mentality of new head football coach Geoff Collins and his ilk, played no small part in the hitting flourish of not one, but two Wilhites, and the electric attitude of the team. And though they didn’t ultimately even escape their own regional, this team was the best the Flats has seen in years, and without a doubt this year’s team of the year. If I, humble non-revenue sports reporter for From the Rumble Seat, was allowed to give out awards, that’s who I’d pick for that one.
So that’s how we got here. Now, at a high level, where are we headed?
AI 2020 Update:
Visit http://gtathl.com/2020/ for more details, but the short version is that there’s only $40 million left to raise, but that those dollars get harder as the goal draws nearer.
Why are these important? Physical improvements and facility construction is easy to understand. Athletes want to play, train, and hone their craft in the best facilities possible. Fans want an enjoyable gameday experience and to consume as much Tech content as possible. Easy. Fundraising all of this capital before construction means that, unlike past Tech facilities project, they can go largely un-bonded, limiting the additional debt the athletic department would need to take on. All of the following initiatives fall under that:
- O’Keefe Gymnasium
- Russ Chandler Field Phase II
- Football Locker Room
- Basketball Locker Rooms
- ACC Network Studio
- Edge Center Renovation
I think the least appreciated aspect of this is the full endowment of the non-revenue sport scholarships, freeing up much-needed recruiting flexibility for those teams and monetary flexibility and expansion for the department as a whole, as less annual revenue is a sunk cost into non-endowed scholarships. But, suffice it to say, the project is well on its way to the $125 million goal.
A Note on Potential New Sports:
To quote myself in the mailbag a couple weeks ago:
Title IX really nails us here. If we want more men’s sports, we need more women’s sports. Rumor has it that for all the itching and angling men’s lacrosse, a historically excellent program, has done to try and become a varsity sport (they function at a very high level, as it stands), women’s lacrosse doesn’t have nearly the same inclination. My own biases about the benefits of playing club sports aside, I don’t see WLAX budging, no matter how much MLAX may want to get bumped up. As it stands, Tech is the only school in Power Five athletics without a women’s soccer team, so that would be a good place to start. Investing in those facilities would make it easier to bring along the men. Speaking of, though, I’ve always thought our lack of a women’s golf program, especially with now having Noonan Golf up and running over on 14th Street for practicing, let alone Tech’s storied golf history, was a bit glaring. Similarly, we have the players for a new sport, women’s beach volleyball, and recently saw the Van Gunst twins head to Georgia State to exhaust their NCAA eligibility in that sport in grad school after four years of volleyball on the Flats.
No, not every club sport needs to be brought to the NCAA level. For example, two of our best teams, swimming and women’s basketball, already have varsity teams. With the club sport of the year and female club athlete of the year already covered, how about the men’s club sport athlete of the year? Oh. Wait. He’s a club baseball player. See what I mean? And as good as a team like hockey is, finding the space and money to build them facilities is [Duran Duran] near impossible. But lacrosse and soccer? Those are viable options. There is facility space and athletic prowess, respectively, for teams like women’s golf and beach volleyball. Tech has long been a golf juggernaut. Why not spread that to the women’s side as well? The athletic department touts that we are able to achieve all the way up to 55th in the Director’s Cup rankings with just 17 varsity sports, the second fewest among Power Five conference members. Frankly, I find that small total a little embarrassing. Tech should have more. And whether it’s something we haven’t thought of yet, like field hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, water polo, another sport we already have the space for and a grassroots club sport base, or rowing, another example of an exemplary club sport, Tech is worse off for not having a more complete and competitive program.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the money.
Various and Sundry:
- If you haven’t seen this yet, take a look at what Akshay had to say a couple weeks ago about the parallels between Tech and Stanford.
- If Tech would channel the passion amongst club sports athletes, particularly in their own sports, student attendance at sporting events would be a lot higher. Swimmers already choose to go to watch varsity swim meets, and tennis players to tennis matches. Get that appeal to grow, and cultivate it across their “home” sport, and you have an organic movement that fills up the stands better at non-football events.
- Best home crowd, regardless of occasion? Volleyball at O’Keefe.
- Best home crowd, one single event? A rowdy baseball regional game.
- Shoutout to GTAA for finagling the much nicer side of the stadium for Tech fans in the bowl game. The difference was night and day, night and day.
- Paul is out and Geoff is in...will the fans respond?
- MaChelle is out and Nell is in...uh...what is women’s basketball going to do, really?
- ACC Network - if you don’t have it yet, you will, for football, basketball, baseball, softball, and volleyball.
- Adidas - they’re giving Washington much more of a rollout than us and I still can’t find those navy baseball caps with the gold block T (sorry Joey!).
- Over/under on years before Bobby Dodd has a Waffle House?
- What’s first: Georgia Tech varsity soccer, men’s or women’s, or Atlanta United heritage game at Bobby Dodd?
- Over/under on number of varsity sports by 2025?
- Over/under of sports to make a return to NCAA postseason play next year (volleyball, either basketball team, men’s tennis, softball, women’s swimming, and men’s cross country are the options)
- Over/under postseason programs next year? 2020-2021?
- Over/under this year’s no. 55 ranking in the Director’s Cup?
The Year Ahead:
Of course, the biggest headline to look to is incoming head football coach Geoff Collins, but enough ink has been spilled here at From the Rumble Seat on that, and everywhere else, so I’m sure any reader now 2,000+ words into this will know the gist there already. Other headlines to look for include volleyball, as a young team looks to take another developmental step forward, women’s cross country, who look to solidify their newfound status in their sport, men’s swimming riding their transcendent star to a solid national showing, if just being a middling team in the conference picture, at best, women’s basketball turning a new leaf after a turbulent end to a season that showed such promise last year, men’s basketball adding another solid transfer to another year of the charismatic Jose Alvarado and Mike Devoe, men’s tennis lashing together a handful very young studs to an experienced veteran and hoping for another step in the right direction, softball looking to build on two years of steady growth, and baseball looking to reload instead of rebuild after losing several excellent players following one of their best years in recent memory. Oh, and hopefully golf quietly keeps being the best Atlanta sports team that no one ever talks about.
Buy: A rising tide lifts all ships. Better managed money and, if the tried-and-true barometer for a Stansbury hire, Coach Aileen Morales, is any indication, coaching selections, Tech is a program on the rise. If cross country, track and field, and swimming and diving can capitalize on this pre-full-funding success, imagine the stride they can take when their scholarships are all fully funded in a few years. The jury is still out on swimming, track, and men’s cross country. Women’s basketball, well, they can’t have a crazier year than they did last year. But Danny Hall, Kenny Thorne, Rodney Harmon, and Morales are recruiting like crazy, and, though they might not keep trending upward quite so linearly, they are all clearly very passionate about Tech and their programs, and that is the most important ingredient. Michelle Collier has her team on the right track. Geoff Collins might need a few years to settle in, recruit, and win, but anyone who doubts the allure of playing in the Capital of College Football for one of the sports oldest success stories, for a dynamic set of coaches, in a flashy branded program, with all the Waffle House one could ever want, and, seriously, this is a factor in decisions, should get their mind checked.
Georgia Tech should be feared. Give us the TV money. Give us the AI 2020 money. Give us incredible branding and graphics. [Huey Lewis and the News], I’d like a Director of Morale, too, if we’re being honest, shoutout Cubs Twitter, but that will come with time.
Any reader of this blog, especially one that’s made it through the thousands of words in this monstrous post, is nodding along. But spread the word. Reinforcements are coming to tennis, baseball, and football. Todd Stansbury is the right man for this job. Tech is a program on the rise. In a little over a month, the cycle starts anew.
Let’s get back to business.
June 10th - Track and Field June 17th - Men’s Golf June 24th - Women’s Tennis July 1st - Men’s Tennis July 8th - Softball July 15th - State of the Program
July 22nd - Women’s Basketball
July 29th - Cross Country
August 5th - Swimming and Diving
August 12th - Volleyball
If you have any insight you’d like to share on this, or any other program at Tech, leave a comment below. Be sure to tune in next week for the other team that calls the Ken Byers Tennis Complex home.