Among the Georgia Tech’s three victories at the UCF Challenge last weekend was a get-everyone’s-attention, season-opening 3-1 triumph over AVCA preseason No. 12 Penn State.
Junior Julia Bergmann, the 6-foot-5 outside hitter who averaged 4.82 kills and hit .325, not only earned tournament MVP honors but was named the AVCA national player of the week.
It was another watershed moment for a quickly rising Yellow Jackets program.
But Bergmann, the product of Munich, Germany, who was raised in Brazil, couldn’t help wondering how the 25-20, 25-16, 17-25, 25-19 victory over the Nittany Lions was perceived nationally.
“People say, ‘I guess Penn State isn’t good this year,’ ” Bergmann said.
If that, indeed, was the reaction, it would be understandable. Penn State, of course, is on a short list of programs considered a measuring stick for all others. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years this past spring, so the ’Jackets hardly rate as a perennial powerhouse.
To Bergmann and her teammates, however, the national response to the win over Penn State should go something like this: Georgia Tech, which also beat UCF and St. John’s last weekend, both NCAA tourney teams last spring, is pretty good this year.
And the Yellow Jackets get another chance to stay in the national spotlight when they play at Long Beach State on Friday and then No. 18 UCLA at Long Beach on Saturday.
With a strong, experienced senior class and a well-established foundation under eighth-year coach Michelle Collier, Georgia Tech seems poised for a breakout season. The Yellow Jackets received a No. 24 preseason ranking in the AVCA poll and this week jumped to No. 16.
“I think this is just the beginning,” Bergmann said.
“That definitely was the goal from day one,” said Collier, a Brazilian who played at USF and professionally and previously was an assistant at USF and South Carolina, and was head coach at Jacksonville. “I was very intentional with how I wanted to rebuild the program. There was a lot of adjustment to the style of play and training I wanted to have and our culture.
“Our culture is being competitive, being good teammates, giving them a positive environment so they can balance out the pressure of the academics here. We help them grow as people as well as try to get the best out of them on the court.”
The Yellow Jackets had sub-.500 records in the ACC in Collier’s first two seasons. Then, in 2016, Georgia Tech improved to 15-5 in the ACC and 24-8 overall. The 15-5 mark landed GT in a third-place tie in the ACC with Pitt and Duke. But when the at-large bids went out for the NCAA Tournament, Pitt got the nod over the ’Jackets, who had a higher overall winning percentage (.750) than the Panthers (.735), and the Blue Devils.
After the sting of the snub wore off, there came another sobering realization: The team was graduating 10 players from its roster of 13. The program, perhaps not surprisingly, took a step back the following season, finishing 8-12 in the ACC.
The tide began to turn in 2018 with the arrival of the current seniors. It was a class that took some lumps at first (6-12 in the ACC), but important building blocks were put into place. Libero Maddie Tippett, outside hitters Mariana Brambilla and Mikaila Dowd, setter Matti McCissock and middles Kayla Kaiser and Breland Morrissette got plenty of experience.
That helped set the tone for what was to come. The past two seasons have been some of the best in program history.
“We learned a lot when we were playing (together),” said Brambilla, a 5-9 outside from Porto Alegre, Brazil, who was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American last spring. “We know how each one of us works. We have a really great connection. We know what to expect, and we know what we have to do to grow and learn more.
“I think it’s really nice to have that experience.”
Georgia Tech finished second to Pitt in the ACC at 14-4 and went 26-8 overall in 2019 — though, again, it wasn’t enough to impress the selection committee. Notre Dame, Florida State and Louisville — each of whom finished two games behind Tech in the ACC — received the at-large bids, along with champion Pitt’s automatic bid.
Last season, the Yellow Jackets were 13-4 in the ACC and finally earned that elusive NCAA invitation, winning their tournament opener against Lipscomb before losing to Minnesota.
Getting over the hump and into the tournament was a huge boost, and even in defeat, it was clear to those in the ’Jackets’ locker room that the program was headed in the right direction.
“I felt like we competed well against a great team,” Collier said. “I left that match knowing a little more execution on our side of the things I knew we could do would have put us in an even better position.”
Added Bergmann: “We could see we could compete at a high level, and that motivated us and pushed us to keep pushing in practice. You feel that you can do more, and that’s what we want to do this season.”
So far, so good. After plowing through the UCF Challenge by dropping only two sets in three matches, the Yellow Jackets are off to the West Coast this weekend, where they will face Long Beach State and No. 12 UCLA — another litmus test for the program’s evolution.
“I wouldn’t have put this schedule together if I didn’t think we had a chance to compete with every team,” Collier said.
That chance starts with the senior class.
Brambilla is a two-time first-team All-ACC performer and, last season, was a third-team VolleyballMag.com All-American. She averaged 4.2 kills per set and hit .318 in 2020-21. She also has proven adept at playing the back row, averaging 3.0 digs per set through the first three matches this season, and twice previously she averaged better than 2.8 digs per set for a season.
Tippett, who is from Atlanta, also is off to a strong start, averaging 3.5 digs per set. The number also is indicative of her consistency: In each of the previous three seasons, she has averaged between 3.1 and 3.5 digs per set.
McKissock, who is from Windermer, Florida, was an All-ACC second-teamer last season and the conference setter of the year in 2019. She is averaging nearly 12 assists per set through the first three matches. Morrissette, a senior middle from Birmingham, meanwhile, has a team-high 11 blocks.
Unlike the team from 2016, however, this group has plenty of contributors beyond the senior class. Bergmann, the 2019 ACC Freshman of the Year, has a team-leading 53 kills. Fellow junior Erin Moss has helped to solidify the front line with nine blocks (a team-leading 1.12 per set).
Junior Paola Pimentel, a transfer from Miami Dade College, gives Collier another solid option at libero. The Rio de Janeiro native has appeared in all 11 sets and contributed 16 digs.
Collier also has a lot of confidence in her freshman class, led by Bianca Bertolino. The 6-foot outside hitter stuffed the stat sheet in Tech’s first three matches: 34 kills (3.04 per set), three aces, 32 digs and seven blocks.
Bertolino has experience playing for Argentina’s national team, which, Collier said, helps her to perform beyond her years.
“Even though she is one of the youngest players, the environment in the gym didn’t intimidate her,” Collier said. “She stepped up great against Penn State (6 kills, 10 digs, 2 block assists) and played just like she does in practice. She was super poised and super composed.
“She’s only going to keep getting better.”
Added Bergmann: “We got some really good new players and some transfers, and that really helps with our group. The team chemistry is great. I think they adapted really fast.”
The team appears to be set up well for the future, but there’s still plenty to look forward to over the next three months.
With the way the Yellow Jackets have been trending, the next logical step will be to contend for an ACC championship. Pitt and Louisville were voted ahead of Georgia Tech in the conference preseason poll, and both are ahead of the ’Jackets in the latest AVCA poll (Pitt No. 7, Louisville No. 12).
Those won’t be easy hurdles to clear. Georgia Tech’s current senior class is a combined 0-8 against the Panthers and Cardinals.
The ’Jackets will get two cracks each at Pitt and Louisville this season (vs. Louisville Oct. 3 and at Louisville Nov. 12; at Pitt Oct., vs. Pitt Nov. 19). And while those matches are in the back of the players’ minds and talk of an ACC title isn’t hushed, Brambilla insisted the team won’t get ahead of itself.
After all, she said, they have played only three matches in what will be a long season. Maintaining focus and consistency, she said, are the keys.
“We have our goals, and everybody knows what we want to do and where we want to get to,” she said. “But we also think about one step at a time. What matters is the moment.
“I trust my team and I trust my teammates. But we need to put in the work every day. It’s not easy, but I believe with this team we have what it takes.
“I always think of how far we have come since my freshman year, so, for sure, I believe we can accomplish a lot of good things.”
That, Collier insisted, is all that matters. The attitude within the team supersedes any outside noise.
Still, Bergmann wouldn’t mind showing the rest of the country Georgia Tech is for real.
“It’s always fun to prove people wrong, and I think that’s what we want to do this season,” she said. “Louisville and Pitt are really good teams, but I really believe we are a good team and can take this ACC championship home this season.”
Chuck Curti is a sports copy editor and writer for the Tribune-Review and TribLive.com (Greensburg, PA)