KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The defending Southeastern Conference champion Tennessee volleyball team officially opened the 2012 campaign on Thursday, conducting the first team practice of the season. 12 returners, including all seven starters, joined six newcomers for the first time as a team on the practice court at Pratt Pavilion.
With defending SEC Coach of the Year Rob Patrick leading the Orange & White in his 16th season, the Lady Vols look to build off one of their most successful campaigns in program history. UT earned the program's first outright league championship, posted 28 total wins and went 19-1 in SEC play in 2012. However, after being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the Second Round for the second-straight season, the Lady Vols have high expectations and a vision for the upcoming slate.
"We're very excited about this year," said Patrick. "The first thing we're excited about is how many returners we have and the success and experience that they were able to garner from last year's play. The other thing I'm very excited about and proud of this team for is how hard they worked this offseason. They could have easily rested on their laurels after winning a SEC Championship and making the NCAA Tournament, but they weren't satisfied with that. They felt they didn't accomplish everything they set out to do last year and re-dedicated themselves to go further this upcoming season."
After having four underclassmen starters last season, the Big Orange proudly welcomes back all seven starters in 2012, including four All-Americans.
"It provides some experience for us in a lot of different areas rather than just one or two," Patrick said. "Our whole floor is just littered with a tremendous amount of experience. The other thing that brings those preseason honors is really a reflection of how your team does. And that's the number one focus of our team all the time. The honors provide these young ladies with confidence. They have a tremendous amount of confidence in their abilities now because of the success they had the previous year."
UT LEADS LEAGUE WITH 5 TV GAMES
This season, Tennessee will make a league-high five television appearances during the upcoming 2012 campaign. Three of the televised matches will be on ESPNU, while the other two will be on SportSouth and Comcast/Cox.
The Lady Vols open conference action with a TV game at Missouri on Sept. 12 and meet at Kentucky on Sept. 26. UT is next airing live on Oct. 10 when it heads to Baton Rouge, La., for a matchup with LSU. All three matches will air on ESPNU at 8 p.m. ET.
The Big Orange welcomes Alabama to Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday, Oct. 28 for a 1 p.m. matchup that will air on FOX SportSouth and travels to Gainesville, Fla., for a 2 p.m. tilt against rival Florida on Nov. 4. The matchup against the Gators will be featured on CSS or CST.
FUN IN THE SUN
With hopes of improving her all-around game, defending SEC Player of the Year and returning All-American Kelsey Robinson took on a new challenge this summer. Robinson, an outside hitter at UT, competed with the USA Beach Volleyball Under-21 National Team this summer and believes her experience on the sand will definitely help on the hardwood.
"The beach game is so different than the indoor game," said Robinson. "People don't really realize it. It's like learning a whole new sport. You think you're good indoors and then you get out there and you have to start over. Bringing that game into the indoor court is going to help my vision on the court and my ability to communicate with my teammates. It's a whole different game, but it's going to bring a lot of experience to the indoor court. The biggest thing I want to bring indoors from the beach game is that we have to be a unit this year, be able to feed off of each other and work together."
ALL TOGETHER NOW
The SEC recently announced the Lady Vols were the preseason favorite to repeat as conference champions in a unanimous vote by the league's coaches. In addition, both Robinson and redshirt senior DeeDee Harrison were tabbed to the Preseason All-SEC Team. With all the preseason hype, Harrison - UT's defensive presence at the net - believes it's going to take a team effort in 2012.
"It's always nice to have individual awards, but the biggest thing is how we work as a team," Harrison said. "There would be no individual awards without the team so I'm very appreciative, but I'd rather it be more of a team thing. This year, that's our focus. We have a vision this year. We're always talking about having a vision and moving forward. The target [on our back] is motivation not something we should be scared of. We're using it to our advantage."