ATLANTA, GEORGIA — The weather is hot and steamy, the air thick with both humidity and pollen. After all that the past year has wrought, the uncertain academic and sporting year of 2020-21 came and went. Time marched on. The sun still rises in the east in the morning and sets in the west in the evening. And here we are, standing on the precipice of yet another year, the 130th season of Georgia Tech varsity athletics, looking at a year that seems familiar and normal, but fundamentally different.
Sure, there’s a lot that we’ll recognize, from players who have seen success on the Flats, to coaches who have been model leaders for years, or even decades. The familiarity and normalcy that sports bring are one of the attributes that most often keeps us coming back to their embrace.
And that’s the thing - there’s plenty of reasons to stay close to the miasma of sport, particularly at Georgia Tech. The allure of hope and young talent show signs that football could take big steps forward this year. Three programs are coming off their best showings - postseason, conference, and the like - in a decade or more, those being volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, and return many of the faces that got them to those great heights. Several teams, particularly those in the pool and on the track, are coming off some of their best showings of all time. On the links and the diamond, new-look spring sports saw youthful and green players turn in impressive regular seasons that led to postseason bids in their respective tournaments and a Coastal Division title. It’s worth remembering just how different a Tech baseball team that won the 2019 Coastal title looked from the one that won it in 2021, and the same this is absolutely true for the lineup card for golf.
All of this added to the much-touted 44th place finish in the Learfield Director’s Cup. There’s two ways to view this finish:
- This is lightyears beyond the 120+ place finish of just a few years ago.
- If Tech had such a great year, why aren’t they closer to the top?
There are immovable obstacles that block Tech from ever winning the Cup. This is okay. The main one behind that is that just there aren’t the sports programs on campus to raise that bar all the way to the top. This column has long advocated for the expansion of sport offering at Tech, but, for now, I’m softening that position - before growth, there needs to be consistency. The Tech athletics program we’ll see this year is perfectly primed to provide another step towards that consistently high performance.
There’s been quite a bit of ink - real and via pixels - spilled about how the world we know is different than it was just a few years ago. All of those things probably apply here, too. But the thing that is the most important today is the expectations, the hope.
But it’s the hope that kills you.
Yes, I have been watching Ted Lasso lately, why do you ask?
That line may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. This season, Georgia Tech will feature something interesting, dangerous, and exciting - a fair dope of hope. I think that is absolutely a positive development.
Today, we’re rolling free form with the Yellow Jacket Roundup. It’s a new year, and, at least for today, we’re going to ditch the structure and just see where this adventure leads us. Today, expect some volleyball, previewing the season through the lens of the week one results. In addition, we’ll take a peek at the first two club sports schedule we’ve seen this year, via the Hockey and Swim Clubs. Let’s get started.
Also, at the end, we have some links to other FTRS content, and, I may be biased, but I encourage you to check out the podcast for football, history, and everything in between. I feel like it has been hitting a nice stride lately, but I’m a little biased.
Overall: 3-0 / Last Week: 3-0
Polls - AVCA Coaches: 24
Nerd Stuff - RPI: Not Available
One of the most significant knocks against the 2019 edition of the Georgia Tech volleyball team, one that closed the regular season on a 13-1 run, making them one of the hottest teams in the sport, was their middling RPI. RPI, as many know, is a significant factor in tournament selection across a number of NCAA sports. While some of that is undoubtedly due to an inconsistent ACC, but the non-conference schedule is almost certainly a bigger culprit. That 2019 team that ended on such a solid streak played Long Beach State, Southern, UNC Asheville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, IUPUI, Louisiana, Arizona State, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the school in Athens before ACC play. Sure, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Arkansas, and the school in Athens are all pretty good, but Tech only won one of those contests. Even worse, they also lost to Kennesaw State.
Inevitably, this slightly-delayed preview will key in on a few key themes:
- We’re about to look at the changes to the schedule.
- This is the most experienced Tech team since 2005.
- This program is figuring to have its deepest rotation in years, and keeps pulling in young talent.
- They’re already showing they haven’t even missed a beat.
It’s worth mentioning that the 2020 team did turn it around and make a tournament, where they played the aforementioned Lipscomb and got their first tournament appearance and first win since today’s college freshmen were learning to walk. Not to mention, that 2019 team tore through the 2019 NIVC, and flags fly forever. Speaking of, where’s the NIVC banner? It seems like one would be a great addition to O’Keefe.
What did the staff - an experienced team of head coach Michelle Collier, the C-USA Player of the Decade for the 2000s while head coach of a juniors club volleyball team at the same time, newly minted associate head coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist Claudio Pinheiro, and four time NCAA champion Arielle Wilson - change the most coming into 2021? The most obvious has to be the schedule.
This year, that non-conference schedule looks a decent amount different. Namely, they start the season with #12 Penn State, UCF, St. John’s, Long Beach State, #17 UCLA, Mississippi State, Indiana, Oklahoma, RV Arkansas, and the school in Athens. Those last two provide intriguing cross-conference consistency - Arkansas has joined the Athenians on schedule for the final weekend of the non-con slate every normal year since 2018 - but opening the year with Wilson’s alma mater is like opening the year with volleyball’s equivalent of a college football Alabama. Having the benefit of writing this after opening weekend means we’ve already seen the game - and they won.
Now, I’m not saying to set the expectations through the roof, but it is important to note that this is Tech’s highest ranked win since their Sweet Sixteen win over #8 California in the 2003 Sweet Sixteen. Notably, the Jackets also knocked off the Nittany Lions with minimal contributions from Mikaila Dowd and Kayla Kaiser, two very experienced upperclassmen. That fact carries over to the other games on the weekend, a four set comeback against the host UCF team in their own gym on full rest and a thorough sweep of St. John’s.
Why were these two limited in their playing time? Honestly, I’m not sure, but the exhibition didn’t see much from Mariana Brambilla, but there could be a load management aspect to it. That’s the thing about sports outside of football - sometimes these things aren’t too clear.
All this seems seems to breeze straight past the fact that Tech knocked off one of the most consistent programs in all of college volleyball. Call it an upset or don’t - the social media team sure didn’t think it was - but the fact of the matter is that Tech has coalesced at the same time this coaching staff has firmed up around Collier, Pinheiro, and Wilson. Wilson’s work with the middle blocker position is almost certainly what led to the excellent steps forward seen at that position in 2019 year-over-year, and that Tech took such large strides in recruiting talent and results - they’ve now gone to three straight postseasons - cannot be a coincidence.
Heck, when is the last time Georgia Tech volleyball has gotten a mention on the Big Ten Network? Sure, I’m a junkie only watching the B1G-Big 12 Challenge right now at 10:00 PM on a Saturday night because there’s minimal football and I refuse to think that it’s more worthwhile to watch San Jose State play Southern Utah just because the ball is brown and pointy when Minnesota and Wisconsin are playing volleyball, but it’s great to hear Tech in the mix in the national volleyball picture. They’ve certainly earned it.
They’ve earned it in no small part thanks to the recruitment and development of consistent and talented starters like Julia Bergmann, Matti McKissock, and Maddie Tippett alongside Dowd, Kaiser, and Brambilla. Brambilla and Bergmann were named All-Americans last year, the first for the program since 2016. Not only that, but the staff has augmented that successful core with new faces like Paola Pimentel, giving Tippett a reliable backup as defensive specialist and extra hitters for the rotation like Bianca Bertolino. In the meantime, younger players like Isabella D’Amico provide a reliable second option at setter behind the well-regarded and experienced McKissock, alongside incoming Nebraska transfer Nicole Drewnick as another player that adds depth to that key position. The early season candidate for player to watch, though, is middle blocker Erin Moss, who was quite efficient on the attack against Penn State and looked very up to speed in the exhibition against South Carolina.
The rest of the slate, as noted, doesn’t necessarily let up for Tech, despite getting the only doubleheader day and best non-Pittsburgh team out of the way. Though the ACC cut the volleyball tournament after the 2004 season, it chose instead to replace it with 6 more conference games. However, that 22 game slate has slowly been whittled down to 20 in 2008, and then 18 in 2018. I guess we’ll be down to 16 in 2028, at this rate.
This means that, even though the conference has grown from 12 teams in 2005 where each team played a double round-robin of home and homes - wait, maybe that “no more tournament” decision isn’t so crazy, after all, now that I realize that - it now plays 18 games against 14 other teams, leaving just four squads on the home-and-home list. As the conference has grown, it has added more high-quality volleyball squads to the mix in the form of Notre Dame (since 2013, 2021 #25), Louisville (since 2014, 2021 #13), and Pittsburgh (2013, 2021 #9), especially important as traditional powers like Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Tobacco Road have been inconsistent over the past few years. That means, as game count shrinks, it has fewer opportunities to catch those quality teams each year, adding to the earlier scheduling problem.
This year, though, the ACC supplemented the annual home-and-home with Clemson with Florida State, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. If this was by design to get more games on the schedule between the conference’s top teams, then it’s an opportune one for Tech. Though 2020 was undoubtedly a successful year for Tech, they didn’t capitalize on their pole position in the conference standings when it came time to play Notre Dame, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. Thus, rather than get a more optimal seeding in the tournament and a likely conference championship, they slid to fourth and narrowly made the shrunken NCAA tournament. Much like Clemson dominates the football landscape, Pittsburgh has done that for volleyball in the conference since their arrival, and that narrative of it as a top-heavy, minimal tournament team conference clashes strongly with the narrative of the ACC as a deep basketball conference, or the deep lacrosse conference, ad infinitum.
At the end of the day, it takes a solid performance against an elite schedule from teams like Tech and the non-Pittsburghs of that second tier of the ACC to lift the tide for the narrative of a conference as a whole. In a world where the competition brought by the conference slate just means more, no reference intended, the results out of that schedule carry more weight, too.
Thus, Tech finds itself in the bellweather position for the conference. A continued ascendence for them, especially this team and against this schedule not only has the potential to make this season a program-defining one, but one that helps shape the medium and long term vision and view of the conference, writ large.
Clearly, Tech is up to the challenge, because they’ve already been getting started.
I, as are many here at From the Rumble Seat, insist we’re not promoters for promoters’ sake. We wouldn’t shill for Cypress Street Pint and Plate if it weren’t a good place to eat good food and drink good beer, and we wouldn’t recommend television or movies in the mailbag if we didn’t genuinely enjoy them. All of this is to say that this team is worth buying a ticket for and checking out in person. If there was ever a time to get into college volleyball, the time is right now.
In the Club House
Schedules, Preseason News, and Season Notes
Georgia Tech Hockey
One of Georgia Tech’s most accessible and fun to watch club sports returns to the ice for their first full slate since before the pandemic in just under two weeks when they host Clemson at the Atlanta IceForum.
Tech has eight home weekends spread over a span of six months, so there will be plenty of opportunity to catch them live in Atlanta, which is a market so starved for hockey - the Atlanta Gladiators are the only professional team, per Wikipedia - that these fellows could legitimately stake a claim to being the second best team in the metro area. So grab a jersey when their store is back up and check them out in Duluth.
If club sports-related road trips are more your thing, a perusal of the schedule seems to indicate that the Savannah trip is back in the cards this year for the middle of January, as Tech is slated to face Florida State and the school in Athens in their annual tournament. That has to be one of the cooler club sports tournaments in existence, as the neighbor and rival SEC and ACC programs from Florida and Georgia square off in a nice little event in a solid destination town.
Other potential vacation trips include a venture to Charleston in September, along with Orlando in October, both for doubleheaders. Honestly, designing your vacations around the schedule of a club hockey team is exactly the kind of Crazy Sports Guy energy that we need in this world.
As far as strength of schedule goes, it’s a little hard to tell, given the abrupt season last year. Tech played pretty well and hung around in most contests, even if the record wasn’t quite what they’ve seen in the past. Much like most sports, though, the reality is that, even more than varsity, it was incredibly hard for club sports teams to even find permission, space, or availability to practice, let alone put protocols in place to play games, yet these guys were able to make it happen, which, as clubs are essentially an organization run by full time students, is a monumental accomplishment.
Regardless, the games are always fun, and the nice part about being a club sport means that teams play lots of regional games against fun rivals like Auburn, Clemson, Tennessee, the school in Athens, Florida State, and South Carolina. They’re absolutely worth checking out, even just for the curiosity factor.
Georgia Tech Swim Club
The three time - four, if not for COVID - defending College Club Swimming national champions may not have publicly released their schedule yet, but, uh, let’s just say I know a guy. Or gal. The number one rule of Big J journalism: protect your sources.
The ladies and gentlemen of swimming Buzz will start their season on the road at Auburn on September 17th for the away leg of the annual home-and-home Oldest Rivalry in Club Swimming, a name I most definitely did not make up out of thin air two years ago when I wrote their schedule blurb. Tech has retained the rivalry trophy — a wrestling-style belt — in every edition of the event since Spring 2019. Tech will then return home to host their fall invite the weekend of October 16th and 17th before making a quick turn to attend the Clemson Invitational on the road the following weekend. They wrap their schedule with a trip to Gainesville for CCS Regionals hosted by Florida Club Swim and Dive the first weekend of November.
Having swam at all three of these away pools, I must say none beats Tech, and though the “half underneath a basketball stadium” vibes at Florida are interesting and Auburn has an absolute monument to excess in the vast scale of their windowless pool, nothing is quite as fine as the drive up to Clemson for a nice fall meet at the historic Fike Fieldhouse. Then again, I’ve always been one to shill for the quick drive that is a sporting trip to Clemson.
The spring schedule has not been announced yet, though it is known that Tech will once again host CCS Nationals April 8th-10th, as, after four years, the meet Tech founded returns to home waters to cap a wild month of top-tier swimming at the McAuley Aquatic Center. More details to come regarding the varsity schedule are yet to be released, but it is known that Tech will host the ACC Championships in February as part of the run-up to the NCAA Championships in March. Back on the club side of things, Tech looks to make it a half-decade at the top of the table, albeit being essentially top-to-bottom a completely turned-over lineup from the one that took to the blocks in that first championship run back in 2018. Time will tell if that dominance rolls along for another year.