Sometimes the numbers just don't tell the whole story.
Heading into the 2001 season, the Georgia volleyball team seemed to have the right numbers in its favor. It lost only one starter from last year's team which upset South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the 2000 SEC Tournament, the same South Carolina team that almost knocked off eventual national champion Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs also had three seniors who were expected to lead the way in the form of Stacy Buerger, Erin Gornes and Kristine Keese, all of whom were major contributors from the 2000 Georgia team.
The stage appeared to be set for a big year in 2001. Unfortunately for Georgia what it was left with at season's end was a disappointing 11-14 record and fifth-place finish (5-9) in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division. Once again, however, the final numbers did anything but depict the story of the season.
"Is it what we anticipated or expected?" Georgia coach Mary Buczek said. "Yes, I think we reached our goals. I think we are disappointed a little bit with the record because there are some matches that we could have won and maybe even should have won, but overall it is where we thought we would be. Once again I think we finished the season strong, playing our best volleyball in the end. I guess that is really how you evaluate your team, by how it finished."
For the second straight year, Georgia's season was punctuated by an unsteady ebb and flow that saw the Bulldogs looking like they could compete with the SEC's best in one match and unable to hold their own in the next.
"It just goes back to inconsistency," Buerger said. "Other coaches would say that Georgia can beat anyone or they can kill themselves. A lot of times I think it was our fault with too many unforced errors and stupid plays."
Added Buczek, "We tried everything, every different technique and motivation, but in the end it is really up to them."
Through it all, the Bulldogs had several stellar performances in 2001, including upsetting a pair of SEC heavyweights on the road in LSU and Tennessee. In the former, Georgia swept the Tigers in Baton Rouge, the first time it did that since 1997, while in the latter the Bulldogs pulled out a five-game thriller in Knoxville to win their first match in the Volunteer state also since 1997. In both cases the victories ended losing streaks for Georgia.
"Definitely the LSU match was a good highlight," Keese said. "It was a must-win situation for us and we came in there and did our job, played hard and competed well. And beating Tennessee was good, especially since it was right before the SEC Tournament."
Added Buczek, "Without a doubt beating LSU in Baton Rouge was a big highlight for our team. Probably what amazes me the most about this season is last year we struggled playing on the road so much and we would always look forward to being at home and this year it was `Let's get on the road.' We beat LSU in Baton Rouge, we beat Tennessee in Knoxville and those were definitely some of our highlights. Did we have a great showing at home with the exception of our home tournament? Not really. I wish we had that to do over again so our fans could see us play the way we did at LSU and Tennessee."
Buerger earned All-SEC honors for the third consecutive year and ended her career No. 6 on Georgia's all-time list with 1,545 kills.
Despite the team's 2001 record, there are several reasons for Buczek to be excited about the future of Georgia volleyball, including the continued progress of juniors Casey DeLong and Jennifer Foytich, sophomores Jessica Boller, Luresa Forsythe and Marnie Curbow, and freshmen Margot Wallace and Jennie Metz.
After a solid first year, Forsythe led the team in digs for the second consecutive season with 234 and finished third on the team in kills with 204. Boller came on the second half of the season to lead the Bulldogs in hitting percentage in SEC matches with a .244 clip. Curbow continued to help the Bulldogs with her passing and ball-control skills. DeLong and Foytich also gained important experience during the season. DeLong gave the Bulldogs a career-best 13 kills in their victory over Pittsburgh and Foytich had several flashes of brilliance throughout the season. And while they endured some growing pains at times, both Wallace and Metz gave the Bulldogs several important contributions. Despite her inexperience, Wallace led the team in assists with 538, while Metz finished third on the team in digs with 157.
"Another highlight from the season was seeing the development of our younger players," Buczek said. "When rebuilding a program you have to have patience and those young players have to get experience and they have done that. Because our younger players are getting all of this experience now we are only going to get better."
Sharing Buczek's optimism for the future are the returning Georgia players, who will make up the nucleus of next year's team.
"I think Mary has more of an idea of what she needs to do," Boller said.
"I think we have all gotten over our really frustrated state and I think she knows what buttons she needs to push to get us fired up. She knows what she needs to do and I think the underclassmen this year are set on turning it around next year. We realize that this coach is going to get us through it. We just need to push and play consistently."
Added Wallace, "I'm very optimistic about the future. Even though we are losing some really great seniors who made a big impact this year, the girls we have returning and the ones we have coming in are really great. It will be a different type of team next year that will be positive. I think we will do really well."