“We normalized winning and playing at a high level here at Georgia Tech.” - Michelle Collier
Georgia Tech Head Coach Michelle Collier made that remark in an earlier interview with From The Rumble Seat, and it’s a welcome message for Tech Volleyball fans. Her Jackets are the preseason 20th-ranked team that has made the postseason in some form every year since 2018, including an Elite Eight run in 2021. Coming into 2023, the team continues their 55-week run in the AVCA Top 25 by making the preseason ranking.
In 2023, Collier’s team had the difficult task of replacing arguably the best player in team history, Julia Bergmann, while also dipping further into the international talent pool, with freshman recruits from Brazil and Turkey. The lineup will be changed, but the expectations from the coaching staff to win many games and continue to recruit well has not.
What Happened in 2022
2022 for Georgia Tech was to prove that 2021’s Elite Eight run was no fluke. While they lost All-Americans Mari Brambilla and Matti Oliver (formerly McKissock), they otherwise retained the roster’s core, promoting Bella D’Amico to starting setter and added Illinois State transfer Tamara Otene at outside hitter.
Tech intentionally stacked their non-conference schedule to play against high-ranking teams that would boost their RPI and strength of record. This included hosting BYU and Ohio State at O’Keefe, where they swept the Cougars and lost 3-1 to the Buckeyes. Their RPI finished 20th in D1, while other, more nuanced ratings systems, such as HuskerGeek’s ViPR and Ken Massey’s Massey Rating slotted them in 12th and 17th, respectively. Regardless of metric, all rated the Yellow Jackets as the third-best squad in the ACC behind Pittsburgh and Louisville, against whom the team finished a combined 0-4. Tech finished the regular season 19-6.
The Jackets just barely missed hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as a five-seed, instead traveling to four-seed Marquette. After easily sweeping Wright State, they fell to Marquette in straight sets, in a game Collier said was “the only one we walked out of there and felt like those guys really outplayed us.”
On Bergmann: While she had an extra year of eligibility after 2022, with professional teams lining up to sign her, she decided it would be her final year. She led the team in multiple attacking categories and with 1,730 kills, climbed to sixth in program history. On November 6, 2022 at Florida State, Bergmann’s 38 kills tied Tech’s single-game record. Her 4.38 kills per set overtook Maja Pachale for most in program history; her 538 kills in 2022 were seventh most by any Tech player in a single season. By 2022, Bergmann was already 9th in program history in aces, eventually rising to fifth with 164.
In the attack, senior Tamara Otene and juinor Bianca Bertolino return as the most experienced outside hitters: Both finished with just over 200 kills last season. Otene had a 17-kill game last season too for a career high, while Bertolino broke the 10-plus kill mark five times over the season. Bertolino recorded 24 digs against both Louisville and Pitt, a figure which represents her career high. Both likely will be the front of the offense to start, with Larissa Mendes potentially coming up behind at outside hitter.
A significant amount of Bertolino’s statistical production came defensively last season, finishing second on the team in DWPA (defensive win probability added) at 10.35, just behind Paola Pimentel. At the Gold/White game, her offseason training showed up as she hit .667 with two aces. Her serve is now a copy of what Kayla Kaiser’s looked like. Over four sets, every all-out attack was an absolute missile, a facet of her game we did not see last season that could be Tech’s most lethal weapon this season.
Senior Isabella D’Amico returns as the starting setter for a second year. She broke the 1,000 assist mark last year, finishing with 1,042 on the season and earning herself an All-ACC Second Team nod. D’Amico finished second behind Bergmann in WPA for Tech last season at 16.74, 0.02 points ahead of Bertolino.
Fifth-year Paola Pimientel returns for her fifth and final collegiate season in the starting libero/defensive specialist role. Her 10.55 DWPA was the most of any Jacket last season, and she also filled in the gaps on setting with 97 assists, two behind Nicole Drewnick. Pimentel finished third on the team in that category. Senior Elizabeth Patterson will assuredly be the primary backup for her, plus be a defensive reinforcement when Collier overloads on a defensive-heavy lineup.
Junior middle blocker Kali Engeman was injured all of last season but might find some playing time this year as both Erin Moss and Breland Morrissette, 2022’s primary middle blockers who graduated. At the Gold/White game, she still had a brace on her left knee but was moving about normally and showed some power behind the kills she had.
Juniors Leia Harper and Laura Fischer, who both saw time last year, round out the returners both at outside hitter/right side. They may again be just outside the starting rotation but sneak into sets here and there when Collier needs a change of pace or has a large enough lead to experiment.
The remaining returners sophomore Cara Bianco, sophomore Anna Boezi, junior Lauren Sanden, junior Ashlyn Goolsby, and sophomore Mikayla White—all rode the bench last season. It remains to be seen if they will get consistent playing time this year. Sanden was the only one to play last year, appearing in one set.
Collier and her coaching staff went primarily international with their incoming freshman, a class she believes gives Tech necessary depth while they go through a mini-rebuild after losing three starters.
“I think we’re very deep in our roster. I think we have more depth than we’ve ever had in all the positions, and so I think that will be a different scenario for us to deal with as coaches,” said Collier.
All of the incoming freshmen either played on national teams or were regulars within their club’s senior team. Typical Division 1 volleyball freshman classes predominantly comprise athletes coming straight out of high school; this is by no means an average freshman class.
“We don’t recruit anybody we don’t think can come in and have a big role and play, so I think that we’re going to have a lot of depth this year. That’s one of the biggest things. Maybe in the past years once the lineup is set there hasn’t been a lot of movement, but I feel like this could be a year where we do some different things we haven’t usually,” said Collier.
Deren Cukur (Fenerbache, İsmir, Turkey, setter):
Until coming to Tech, Deren was en route to join Fenerbache’s top-flight club team. Interestingly, she reached out to Tech about potentially playing for Collier after her older brother played in the States at Grand Canyon University.
“She’s athletic, she has a good size, she’s coming in to add more depth to [the setter] position, learn and grow, and somebody who wants to play this game for a very long time at a very high level. We’re excited to get more minds like that as well. More players who see volleyball beyond college,” said Collier.
Heloise [Pronunciation: el-o-ease] Soares (Flamengo, Joinville, Brazil, setter):
Adding to the depth at setter, the Soares and Cukur combo gives Collier options, as the team will lose D’Amico after this season. Soares showed some crafty moves in the Gold/White game, including attempting a behind-the-back flip kill that nearly landed for a point.
“Heloise is somebody we’ve had on our radar for awhile, and she set for the Brazilian national team in U19 World Championships. She actually was on the list to go to the World Championships this year, but unfortunately those dates mixed with ours. She’s been playing for a very traditional club in Brazil. She also trained with one of the main teams in the Brazilian Superliga as a third setter and got trained by one of the best coaches in the world [a three-time Olympic champion] ... she comes from an environment I think she had to grow a lot and mature in,” said Collier.
Larissa Mendes (Colegio Antares, Fortaleza, Brazil, right side):
Another member of Brazil’s U19 World Championships team, Larissa Mendes looks to be Collier’s primary outside hitter in the coming years after Otene and Bertolino graduate. At the Gold/White game, she stood out with her size and shot power. At 6’4’’, she has the ability to come over the top on her serves and easily can come down at much better angles from the pin position. Between her, Mogridge, and Engeman, the wingspan the Jackets have at the net is so much stronger than last year.
“[She’s] a very physical player. She’s actually playing right side now and will be playing there. She played at Minas, which is a very traditional volleyball club in Brazil ... She was the second opposite on that team. The starting opposite was the one who is on the Brazilian national team. She’s played around some really great players... She’s got good size at about 6’4’’ and good range of attacking (outside or right side). I think she adds depth to that pin position for us,” said Collier.
Zoe Winford (Texas Advantage Volleyball, Nevada, Texas, libero):
Zoe didn’t get many opportunities to shine at the Gold/White game, and considering she’s a freshman at libero behind Pimentel and Patterson, it’s hard to see her getting much playing time this season.
“She’s going to add some good depth in that position, as well coming from a program that wins a lot, so she comes from a good pipeline,” said Collier.
Liv Mogridge (sophomore, North Carolina, middle blocker):
Mogridge spent the 2022 season in Chapel Hill productively, taking home an ACC All-Freshman selection. With middle blocker a position of need given the departures of Moss and Morrissette, Tech gains a versatile player in Mogridge. She played in 96 sets for the Tar Heels, finishing sixth on the team in WPA with 6.6636 wins added, split relatively balanced between offensive and defensive WPA (4.1770 and 2.4866 wins added, respectively), and averaged a 0.069 WPA per set played. Mogridge’s 2022 season statistics would have put her seventh overall in both OWPA and DWPA. Given her existing familiarity with ACC competition and role in a position of need, Mogridge figures to be an intstant-plus addition that will provide immediate impact.
Afedo “Smiley” Manyang (5th year, TCU, middle blocker):
A native-born Egyptian who graduated from Everman High School in Texas, Manyang easily could be an impactful transfer given Tech’s biggest position hole is at middle blocker.
“A great kid who I think is going to fit in super well in our environment,” is how Collier described her.
Manyang had an injury-plagued 2022 season that resulted in her only playing 35 sets in 14 matches, but in her three prior seasons she was a regular at the net. In 2021 she played every match and had her highest-scoring year with 219.5 points; she also set her career high at 190 kills along with 57 total blocks.
DeAndra Pierce (junior, Texas, middle blocker):
Pierce received minimal playing time amid a Texas roster oozing with top-shelf talent, managing just one set in 2021 in the years prior to her transfer. That said, Texas, the defending national champions, provides an outstanding development program, and this makes Pierce a great change-of-scenery candidate at a position of need.
There were no outgoing transfers this offseason. Of note, Otene, D’Amico, and Patterson have the option for a 5th year, having played in the COVID-affected 2020 season, and they could do what Matti Oliver did and play elsewhere for their graduate season.
For Collier, the schedule is a crucial piece in setting up the Jackets for success.
“I don’t think we can take steps back. Even though we’ll be a lot younger than last year and we’re going to be working through some things, this is the schedule required to do what we need to do,” said Collier.
That schedule includes traditional ACC heavy-hitters in #5 Pitt, #4 Louisville, and Miami, all ahead of Tech in the preseason-ACC rankings, alongside huge non-conference games against #14 Ohio State (twice), #8 Penn State, and #13 San Diego. Between the aforementioned schools, Tech will play seven games against last year’s Elite Eight teams.
When including ranked teams and teams receiving votes in the AVCA preseason top 25, Tech will play 12 games against such teams. Tech’s first game is Friday, August 26 in Tampa against South Florida at 7 p.m.
Non-Conference opponents (in schedule order: 2022 record, AVCA rank or RPI, 2022 conference or NCAA Tournament finish):
South Florida: 10-20, RPI: 212th, 9th in AAC
#8 Penn State: 26-8, AVCA 11th ranked, 5th in B1G, Elite Eight in NCAA Tournament
#14 Ohio State (plays Tech twice): 22-10, AVCA 8th ranked, 4th in B1G, Final Four in NCAA Tournament
South Alabama: 18-13, RPI: 214th, 2nd in Sun Belt West
Stetson: 15-14, RPI: 194th, 8th in Atlantic Sun
Florida A&M: 21-13, RPI: 211th, 1st in SWAC, 1st Round in NCAA Tournament
Georgia (received votes): 23-8, RPI: 38th, 3rd in SEC, 2nd Round in NCAA Tournament
Howard: 20-10, RPI: 166th, 2nd in MEAC
#13 San Diego: 31-2, AVCA 3rd ranked, 1st in WCC, Final Four in NCAA Tournament
ACC opponents (in schedule order):
Clemson: 13-18, RPI: 156th, 13th in ACC
NC State: 16-13, RPI: 78th, 6th in ACC
Virginia Tech: 11-18, RPI: 180th, 15th in ACC
Wake Forest: 17-14, RPI: 98th, 8th in ACC
#5 Pitt (plays Tech twice): 31-3, AVCA 4th ranked, 2nd in ACC, Final Four in NCAA Tournament
Virginia: 12-17, RPI: 159th, 14th in ACC
Florida State (received votes): 19-11, RPI: 30th, 4th in ACC, 1st Round in NCAA Tournament
Miami (plays Tech twice, received votes): 19-11, RPI: 35th, 3rd in ACC, 1st Round in NCAA Tournament
Duke: 16-13, RPI: 85th, 10th in ACC
North Carolina: 17-12, RPI: 65th, 7th in ACC
Boston College: 24-13, RPI: 93rd, 9th in ACC
Syracuse (plays Tech twice): 11-17, RPI: 100th, 11th in ACC
#3 Louisville (plays Tech twice): 31-3, AVCA 2nd ranked, ACC Champions, NCAA Finalist
Notre Dame: 10-18, RPI: 143rd, 12th in ACC
In all likelihood, Tech will not be the No. 1 team in the country this season, but being top 16 and earning an NCAA Tournament hosting spot is a major goal for this team.
Jack: The raw talent this team has is super promising. Collier and company did a fantastic job recruiting for this cycle. Larissa Mendes is going to be a freshman who will make an immediate impact and very well could be in the running for ACC Freshman of the Year. I also cannot stress enough the leap Bianca Bertolino has made in the offseason. Whatever program strength coach Scott McDonald had that team on this summer worked, because she is hitting the ball at an insane pace with confidence.
I do think the floor of this team is better. Nobody we brought in made this team worse than it otherwise would’ve been. After the first stretch of non-conference games, we’ll see the team understand each other better with new people in the starting lineup and a new middle blocking core. I won’t go as far as to say Mendes is our next Julia Bergmann, but she is a weapon that in tandem with the offensive prowess of Bertolino, Mogridge, and Otene, we’ll be in good shape. Tech, I think we will miss hosting NCAAs again but be no worse than a six-seed, falling in the Sweet Sixteen to any of Louisville, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, or Pittsburgh.
Jake: I think this team is due for a bit of regression in some fields, while also benefiting in others. One thing the team struggled to adapt to in the post-Brambilla offense was the increased load on Bergmann, as well as the extreme lengths teams would go to zero-in on her. Against lesser teams, this was not much of an issue, but with Otene and Bertolino not perceived and defended by other teams the way the pairings of Brambilla and Bergmann or Brambilla and Mikaila Dowd were, I think having a more diversified outside hitting attack, with more experience for Bertolino and Otene, will mute the loss of one of the program’s greats somewhat, albeit not completely.
It is extremely difficult to lose one of the most talented players Tech has ever had the good fortune of recruiting, but to do that in back-to-back seasons is doubly difficult. The ultimate outcome of this season, I believe, hinges on Tech’s ability to primarily fill the holes left by the departures of two program paragons at middle blocker, and how the shifting attack accommodates those losses and the departure of Bergmann. Among middle blocker options, Mogridge is the most experienced in the ACC context, bringing familiarity and a more well-rounded offense and defensive split than the departing middle blocker.
Slotting her alongside some combination of Mendes, Pierce, and Manyang into the experienced rotation of Bertolino, Otene, and D’Amico, Pimentel could yield another third-place ACC finish. Pitt and Louisville figure to again be elite, while Miami has the benefit of a easier ACC schedule. As long as Tech figures things out relatively well in the non-conference slate despite the daunting start to the season, their resume should set them up for another tournament berth, with the ceiling of a regional host that could make noise into the Sweet Sixteen or potentially the Elite Eight.
FTRS’ Predicted Starting 7
Outside Hitter: Tamara Otene, Bianca Bertolino, Larissa Mendes (right side)
Setter: Isabella D’Amico
Libero/Defensive Specialist: Paola Pimentel
Middle Blocker: Liv Mogridge, Smiley Manyang
Jack Purdy and Jake Grant are non-revenue sports writers and co-hosts of Scions of the Southland for From the Rumble Seat. Jack previously served as The Technique’s assistant sports editor before graduating Georgia Tech in 2022. Jake loves planes, trains, and everything Georgia Tech. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackNicolaus and Jake @jakegrant98. Our thanks to Shelley Wunder-Smith for editing.