RIVER FOREST, ILLINOIS - Usually I default to the much larger city of Chicago right across the street from here when I write these from home, but if you watched any of the Little League World Series Regionals on ESPN this week, you might recognize the name of that town as the boys representing Illinois this past week. I could write a whole column on the importance of youth sports in the development of young people, those who go on to college varsity and club athletics or otherwise, let alone the importance of youth, junior high, and high school athletic teams, marching bands, and academic teams in building civic pride, but that is for another time and place. To the neighbors and familiar faces who played this past week, congrats, and, if you haven’t tuned in yet, while you wait for college and professional football, Tech volleyball, or good old September playoff race baseball, the Little League World Series of Baseball and Softball continues this week on ESPN. Anyways, back to Tech sports.
When We Last Saw ‘Em:
It’s somewhat ironic saving volleyball for last, considering it has also been the longest since we’ve seen them play. At this point, it seems like any opinions you or I could have about them are long set in stone. Which is probably true, but, by saving Tech’s big fall non-revenue sport for last, we can, more than any other team, both review last season and preview the next one with the closest thing one can have to certainty in the ever-shifting, ever-murky landscape of college non-revenue sports. Last year around this time, for example, it was clear that some of the newcomers Tech was getting would be pretty good. But who those players would wind up becoming, Mikaila Dowd and Mariana Brambilla probably topping that list, was absolutely still unclear. But, at the very least, the schedule is set, the roster is updated, and the coaching staff won’t be in flux between now and when the Jackets take the court for the first time next Saturday night. It seems weirdly foreign to say this, but tune in starting at 5:00 PM for the Gold and White scrimmage, the first event on the Georgia Tech 2019-2020 sports calendar.
I remember that day last year pretty clearly. It was raining, and raining hard, at that. The Athletic Association was having a Russell rummage sale in the building that is now the ACC Network studio. Said sports calendar would wind up stretching into June for the baseball regional, but at the time, the only concern would be to find out just exactly what this wave of new faces was playing in O’Keefe had to offer.
Among them, Dowd was the biggest standout. Being named 2018 All-ACC Second Team and 2019 Preseason All-ACC is no small task - the sophomore from Illinois shone in her first year on the Flats last fall. She had a dozen double-doubles, and, along with fellow freshman Brambilla, was a big reason Tech wound up back in the postseason. Both were on the ACC All-Freshman team last year. Granted, it was a new, NIT-esque tournament, not the NCAA championship, but postseason play is postseason play.
They got there by winning their first nine, though all against teams they absolutely should have beaten. The Tulane game came down to a closer margin than was comfortable, but, it was the only speed bump in the opening homestand. Tech’s first losses, a pair, came to a solid Alabama team and an okay Marshall team, though the absence of Dowd was especially apparent in the latter. Tech wrapped up non-conference play with two straight wins against SEC opponents in Atlanta, a five set thriller with the school in Athens and a 3-1 victory over Arkansas. They will see both teams this year out in that town to the east.
Tech’s road got distinctly bumpier in conference play, where the Jackets started with back-to-back losses, to Syracuse and Boston College on the road, and another pair of losses at home, to Louisville and Notre Dame. The Louisville game wasn’t particularly close, but the Fighting Irish barely escaped Atlanta with a five set win. Tech followed that up with a win over Clemson at home in five sets before getting swept by VPISU.
Tech split two on the road to fall to 2-6 halfway through conference play, after a four set loss in Winston-Salem to Wake Forest and a four set win in Durham against Duke. Their next road trip was to visit the Florida schools, where they dropped back to back games in four sets to Florida State and Miami. They were able to stop the bleeding somewhat when the other two North Carolina schools came to Atlanta. In their last six conference games, Tech was slated to face the best team in the conference, Pittsburgh, twice. They were swept twice by the Panthers, once more by Louisville, and by Syracuse in those last six games. Their two wins came to a lowly Virginia team, both coming in four sets.
The Jackets were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in two senses last season, walloping their opponents in the non-conference schedule and at home, while getting trounced on the road and in two thirds of their conference games. Their final splits were 11-2 in non-con play and 6-12 in ACC play, and 14-5 at home versus 2-8 away. They were an even 1-1 in neutral site games. All of these do not count the NIVC. To be fair, a lot of those non-conference games came at home, which explains the overlap. Ultimately, Tech did what is asked of any team, for the most part - it beat the teams it was supposed to beat. But, once conference play rolled around, teams figured out how to neutralize Brambilla and isolate Dowd, so the powerful freshmen weren’t as dominant as they had been over the likes of Idaho State and Winthrop. Against better teams, even in the relatively weaker ACC volleyball scene, Tech was largely unable to pull out evenly matched games or underdog wins. That would need to change, at least on occasion, for Tech to make it back to the NCAA tournament, especially without the benefit of a postseason ACC tournament for the right to the conference’s automatic bid. I still don’t understand why that’s not a thing.
Honestly, I think this team has what it takes to make another step forward. Maybe not a gigantic one, but, much like golf, they don’t really lose anyone. They don’t have to beat every team every game, but starting to flip some more tossups would be a good benchmark for this fall. Their stars all play now with an extra year of experience, wisdom, and workouts under their belt. They add a couple of freshmen to the mix. Really, as dumb as this sounds, it’s just a matter of how the ball bounces, too.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the NIVC. The side benefit of these games are more home matches at O’Keefe, which any longtime reader of this feature will know I’m a fan of. The South Florida game probably shouldn’t have put Tech on the brink of a sweep after two sets, but it did. With their backs against the wall, the Jackets gutted out three straight sets to take the first game in a five set thriller. That builds a lot of character. And, though it wasn’t quite the atmosphere of the game against the school in Athens - a mood which is unrivaled anywhere else in my time on campus, with only the baseball regional against Auburn last spring coming anywhere close - it was great. These games are worth watching. They’re affordable, and this is a fun team. It is never in doubt that they play with great emotion and tenacity. It’s even better when there’s a line to get in the building. I think that this year, they could definitely earn that kind of support. See you Saturday.
Various and Sundry:
- We don’t lose hardly anyone off this team from last year. To the one departure, you will be missed, but, man, is it exciting to think about everyone getting together again.
- Can they prevent their best weapons from being neutralized?
- Playing Pittsburgh and Louisville only once this year - I am a fan.
- Clemson, NC State, Miami, Notre Dame repeat in conference play this year. Probably winnable games, though not locks.
- Road games against the school in Athens and Oklahoma, and Arizona State and Arkansas at neutral sites - going to be tested a lot more early in the season this year.
- Just go to games. When that place is full, sure, it’s toasty warm in the gym, but, man, is it electric.
Future Schedule Highlights:
As seen in the previous section, the schedule is a mixed bag. Conference play definitely gets slightly easier this year. Non-conference play gets harder. Will it result in shuffling the same number of wins around? I don’t think there’s any way this team doesn’t take a step forward, if everything holds up. But they have to come out of the gates swinging this year, with how much change they see from last year. Hopefully they’re up to the task.
Hold: There’s no question this team has talent, and a lot of it young. They got off to a rip-roaring start last year, but that was against a pretty soft schedule. This year, they don’t have the added benefit of getting the school in Athens and Arkansas at home, so they’re going to be thrown into the gauntlet even sooner. If Brambilla has improved her returns, that would be a huge step, because she was clearly targeted by other teams towards the middle and end of last season. She and Dowd figure to be one of the best pairs of sophomore talent in the conference. This team has the potential to take another big step forward this year. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if it materializes.
Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to write about next week. Varsity sports won’t have started, let alone club sports, neither of which have really been active over the summer. So if you have a one-off column idea, let me know. Or maybe I’ll think of something special. We shall see.
If you have any insight you’d like to share on this, or any other program at Tech, leave a comment below. Yellow Jacket Roundup is back soon with the somewhat lighter fall slate of volleyball and whatever tune-ups the spring sports have until swimming and women’s basketball kick into gear.