Aug. 25, 2006
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The 2005 season marked the arrival of the University of Tennessee volleyball team to the most elite level of the NCAA volleyball scene. The Lady Vols went from being an up-and-coming team to a national power, almost overnight. That is what happens when you beat three top-10 teams in a two-week stretch en route to a berth in the NCAA Final Four. In 2006, UT head coach Rob Patrick's players and staff will pack their lunches, don their hardhats and start to work as they strive to continue "Building on Success."
"Last season was validation that we are doing things the right way at Tennessee," Patrick said. "No matter what sport you compete in at UT, you will receive the support needed to compete at the very highest level. Going to the Final Four, especially after reaching the Sweet 16 the year before and being ranked in the top 10 the past two seasons, shows consistency. We've become a Final Four program, rather than just a Final Four team."
Although the season ended as one of the most successful in school history, it certainly did not start out that way. After 15 matches, the Big Orange had already doubled its season loss total from 2004 with six. The Lady Vols, however, refused to succumb to frustration and continued to trust in their abilities. The team put its collective nose to the grindstone and used hard work to propel itself to a 12-2 record prior to entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 15 national seed and host to the First and Second Rounds.
UT's momentum continued into postseason play, as it made quick work of Jacksonville State and pulled off dramatic wins at home against No. 17 Minnesota and on the road at No. 2 Penn State. After a victory over No. 8 Missouri, the team's miraculous season would move on to the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas, where Tennessee was just one win away from the championship match before its season ended at the hands of eventual national champion No. 3 Washington. The 2005 Lady Vol volleyball team proved that it's not the way you start, but how you finish.
With the graduation of three All-Americans, middle blocker Kristen Andre, setter Julie Knytych and defensive specialist Amy Morris, Patrick will have some big shoes to fill going into the 2006 season. The 10th-year coach, however, feels that the role the trio played off the court may be more difficult to replace than their spectacular play on it.
"No matter how many people you have graduate, whether it is one or five, the dynamic of the team is going to change. One of the things that the senior class provided last year was leadership. They were great competitors and leaders," Patrick said. "It is going to be very important for this team to find an identity, as the seniors have filled that role for three years. That will be crucial if we want to be successful this season.
"Our seniors, Sarah Blum, Kelsey Fautsch and Annie Sadowski, will need to provide a tremendous amount of leadership, along with Laurén LaFlamme and Yuliya Stoyanova," Patrick said. "The other person that has a chance to lead is Chelsea Noble, just because she is a setter and is in a position where attention is focused on her. If she does take on some leadership responsibility, she will do a great job of it, because she commands a lot of respect from her teammates."
Making their job easier will be the highly-heralded class of incoming freshmen. The group of seven was ranked in the nation's top 10 by two different publications during the off-season. Volleyball Magazine voted it as the sixth best in the country, while CVU.com placed it eighth. Patrick is excited about the high potential that this set of prep stars brings to the team.
"On paper, we feel it's the best recruiting class we have ever brought to Tennessee," Patrick said. "Obviously, they have not gotten any match experience here, but the type of volleyball experience, as well as skill and athleticism, that they will bring is better than any other class that we have ever had."
Despite changes in the roster, the team's goals will remain the same: win the SEC championship and go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
"Our goals are always the same," Patrick said. "As a coach, all you can ask from your team is to be as good as it can be. There have been some years in the past when our talent level was not good enough to win the SEC or make the Final Four, but we were successful because we reached our potential as a team. Right now, we have the athletes and players where we should be able to reach those goals. That is the mindset of our players and coaching staff and we feel that, if we can help this team reach its potential, those goals are well within reach."
The 2006 version of the Lady Vol volleyball team will be one without many weak links, as every position returns at least one person with extended experience.
Noble will be faced with the difficult challenge of taking over the setter position for Knytych, UT's all-time and single-season assists leader. The native of Vandalia, Ohio, gained valuable match experience in 2005 when the team moved to a 6-2 offense toward the end of the season. As a freshman, she finished second on the team in assists with 76, including a career-high 28 in a comeback victory over No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Nov. 26. She also tallied 225 digs, good for fourth on the team.
"In my time here, we've never been able to afford to give our setter a year to learn the position before having to take over the team, like we have with Chelsea," Patrick said. "Her quickness gives her the ability to get to balls and run our offense from anywhere on the court and makes her one of the premier defensive players on our team."
Incoming freshmen Jena Berg and Jaye Loyd will also vie for time at setter. Berg comes to UT after a successful four-year campaign at Westosha-Central High School in Bristol, Wis. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's 2005 Female-Athlete of the Year led the Falcon volleyball team to consecutive state championships (2003, 2004) and took home the 300-meter hurdles state title (2004) during her prep career.
"Jena brings a tremendous amount of winning experience to our program," Patrick said. "She's been successful, not only in volleyball, but track and field as well. Her ability to pass and play defense at a very high and consistent level will give us the opportunity to utilize her in a number of different lineup combinations, either as a setter in a 6-2 offense, as a defensive specialist or libero."
Loyd also comes to Tennessee with an impressive list of credentials. The Stockton, Calif., native was chosen first-team Tri-City Athletic League (T-CAL) and to the Stockton Record's All-Area Team after helping lead her squad to the T-CAL championship with a perfect 18-0 record. She also earned a bronze medal at the 2006 Junior Olympics in Atlanta, Ga., as a member of the Delta Valley 19 Blue team.
"Jaye is another very skilled, athletic, quick player that is really going to bolster our defense and ball control," Patrick said. "Not only is she an intense defensive player, but she will provide depth to our setter position where she has played in club and high school for the past couple of years. She's another person who, because of her varied skills, will allow us to try some different lineup combinations. She could see time at setter, libero or defensive specialist for us."
Another position that will be a strong point for the Lady Vols is middle blocker. Blum anchors the position while junior Joselyn Johnson will serve as a more-than-capable backup. A trio of freshmen, Carol Cheade, Leah Hinkey and Farren Powe will provide both talent and depth to the position.
In each of the past three seasons, Blum has broken the single-season school record for blocks per game and will open the 2006 campaign just one block from second on the career list. The senior from Tulsa, Okla., earned the 2005 State College NCAA Regional MVP award following the Orange and White's victories over No. 2 Penn State and No. 8 Missouri last season. She will be looked at to provide leadership, experience and success on the court this year.
"Sarah has done a great job of making herself even more athletic than she has been in the past," Patrick said. "She has always been a great blocker and, this year, she will have the speed and ability to control the net defensively. Sarah's improved quickness and stamina will also allow her to be more of an offensive threat for us this year."
Primarily an outside hitter, Johnson will display her versatility again in 2006 as she will also see time in the middle. The athletic junior from Muncie, Ind., played in 19 matches last season and finished fifth on the team in both kills (86) and kills per game (1.69).
"After playing as an outside hitter for us quite a bit last year, Joselyn has put herself in the position to help us as either an outside or middle hitter," Patrick said. "She has worked very hard at becoming a more consistent hitter and once she accomplishes that goal, she will provide a lot of depth at both of those positions. Joselyn is difficult for opposing teams to match up with due to her athleticism and quickness."
Both Cheade and Hinkey bring enough volleyball experience and pure talent to push for extended playing time early in the season. Cheade comes to Rocky Top from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she led her high school team to both state and national championships.
"Carol brings some great international experience and a different style of play to our team," Patrick said. "Her skill level and experience will allow us to use her creatively in our offense where she can play all three of the front row positions. She's benefited greatly from joining our program in January 2006 and will be physically ready to play after spending the spring and summer in our weight-lifting and strength training program."
Hinkey also has an impressive resume, having led Glenwood Springs (Colo.) High School to the state tournament in each of the past three years. Last season, she was named to both the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News first-team all-state lists in addition to claiming first-team All-Western Slope Conference accolades.
"The graduation of All-American Kristen Andre left a huge hole in our middle hitter position, but Leah has the athletic ability and skill to fill those shoes," Patrick said. "She is very fast off one foot running the slides and has a great arm swing as well as a great feel for the game when she is hitting. She comes to our program with a lot of quality training from her club, which will allow her to challenge for playing time very early in her career."
Powe comes highly recommended as a star in both basketball and volleyball at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala. After helping her volleyball team to the Alabama state championships in 2004, she repeated the feat in 2005, guiding them to a staggering 68-5 record. For her play, she was chosen as the Alabama 6A MVP, the Alabama State Player of the Year, an Alabama All-American and McGill-Toolen's Female Athlete of the Year.
"Farren is very athletic and will come in and challenge for time at the middle and outside hitting positions," Patrick said. "She has the flexibility and skills to play any of the front row positions effectively. While she is the rawest talent among our incoming freshmen, she may end up as our biggest surprise this year. We are very excited about her potential and look forward to seeing her grow in our program."
The outside hitter position is the Lady Vols' deepest and most talented this season, with a pair of lefties, Stoyanova and Fautsch, at the top of the depth chart. Sophomores Mindy Flynn and Milan Clarke, as well as freshman Kylie Marshall, are not far behind. Johnson, Cheade and Powe will also play into the mix on the outside.
Following an extremely successful freshman campaign, Stoyanova continued to work hard and improve her few weaknesses. The extra effort paid off for the Sofia, Bulgaria, product, as she was named First-Team All-SEC and AVCA Honorable Mention All-American as a sophomore. The 6-1 junior currently holds the third-highest career kills per game average in UT history, with 3.65.
"Yuliya continues to get better technically as a volleyball player, which will allow her to be a more consistent back court passer and defender for us," Patrick said. "She has always been a very good net player, both blocking and attacking, but the attention that has been paid to her skill development in passing and defense will allow her to be an even more consistent player for us. She's another player who can play all six positions and play them well, which allows us to keep her in the game for an entire match."
Fautsch, who transferred from Nebraska prior to last season, will also play a prominent role in the Lady Vols' offensive attack. In 2005, she was one of UT's most prolific and consistent attackers, posting double-digit attacks in all but two of the team's matches. The senior from Chisago Lakes, Minn., was also a clutch performer, having been named to the State College NCAA All-Regional Team for her accomplishments against No. 2 Penn State and No. 8 Missouri in postseason play.
"Kelsey is also one of our more versatile players as she can play all six positions and be very effective at each one," Patrick said. "She is an outstanding technical blocker which will allow us to match her up with the opposing team's best hitter. She is also an extremely effective attacker from either the right or left side, so we can move her around defensively to make her harder to defend. We are also able to keep her in the game and use her as an offensive weapon because her back row skills are very sound."
The sophomore outside hitting duo of Flynn and Clarke will continue to see plenty of action in 2006. Both players, who have progressed steadily over the course of last season and this summer, will be counted on to provide quality play around the net. Flynn enjoyed a breakout performance in the Orange and White's dramatic, come-from-behind victory at No. 7 Notre Dame with an 11-kill, 26-attack performance.
"The one area that was going to make Mindy a better player was gaining strength and she made a huge commitment to that this past spring and summer," Patrick said. "She has always been a consistent hitter, but the power that she has added will allow her to be more of a terminating hitter for us. Mindy is a very good volleyball player and does not get the credit she deserves for her skills and competitiveness. Both of those attributes have helped her earn a lot of playing time."
Clarke's season culminated with 12 kills in the Lady Vols win at Georgia on Oct. 9. The Santa Monica, Calif., native competed in 27 contests last year and knocked out 78 total kills.
"Milan also displays terminating hitter attributes and gained a lot of valuable playing experience last year," Patrick said. "She did a nice job playing the right side position, which she really had not played before. As a young player, she is just starting to reach her full potential, especially after being in our weight program for the past year. We are very excited about Milan's development this past off-season."
Marshall will be afforded the luxury of learning the nuances of the position during her freshman year, as she will also play into the rotation on the outside. The Puyallup, Wash., product comes to Rocky Top highly qualified after four years at Emerald Ridge High School. She was ranked as the 43rd best senior in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com and served as a member of the USA Youth National Team which won the North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation (NORCECA) title in the 2004 tournament contested in Puerto Rico.
"Kylie is an elite athlete who brings a focused intensity to our volleyball team," Patrick said. "I'm extremely excited to watch her progression at the collegiate level. She's played at the highest level in juniors as a member of the USA Youth National Team, and I feel that her quickness and leaping ability will allow us to use her in some very creative ways in our offense."
The back row contains a mix of three veterans and two newcomers who will work to keep the ball in the air for the Lady Vols. Sadowski will be the vocal leader of the group as she will provide a steadying influence on LaFlamme and freshmen Chloe Goldman and Loyd. When she is not setting the ball for the attack, Noble will also play a key role in UT's defensive effort.
A three-year letter winner for Tennessee, Sadowski is one of the team's most effective defensive specialists. In 2005, she finished third on the squad with 2.30 digs per game.
"Annie has always been one of our most consistent passers and, now that she has spent the off-season getting stronger, we will look to her to be even more of a force as a defensive player," Patrick said. "Another area that Annie has worked hard on improving has been her serve. She has developed her serving into a very strong offensive weapon for our team."
LaFlamme's responsibilities will expand greatly in 2006 after spending a pair of seasons refining her technique at Rocky Top. One of the team's hardest workers, she has significantly increased her skill level since coming to Tennessee.
"Laurén is one of the most diligent workers on the court and in the weight room," Patrick said. "She has put herself in a position, physically, to sustain a high level of play for a long period. She is continuing to get better and more consistent in her back court skills and is a fearless defender who will help us to develop our team identity. We are excited about the development that she has achieved over this past year."
Goldman will provide a background of success to the team after being chosen the MVP of both the Tri-County Athletic League (T-CAL) and Monterey County, Calif., following her senior season at Salinas High School.
"Chloe will bring a lot of energy and excitement to the court for us this year," Patrick said. "She's a very active defensive player who, once she is incorporated into our defensive systems, will have a big impact on our ball control. She has a chance to play quite a bit this year and we are very excited to watch her development."
Patrick's crew will be tested early and often in 2006 as they take on a challenging slate. The Lady Vols play 15 of their 30 matches against teams that qualified for the 2005 NCAA Tournament with 11 of those contests versus squads which ranked in the top 50 of the final RPI of last season.
The schedule is highlighted by matches with Florida (Oct. 1 in Gainesville and Nov. 17 in Knoxville) and Louisville (Sept. 19 in Knoxville). The Gators finished 2005 ranked third in the final CSTV/AVCA Division-I Coaches Top 25 poll and fourth in the last RPI ratings released. The Cardinals placed 11th in the last poll and fifth in the RPI and concluded their campaign in the Regional Semifinals, falling to the Gators.
UT will kick off the season with the Comcast Lady Vol Classic, marking the first time that the Lady Vols will begin their schedule with a home contest since opening the 1997 campaign with the Tennessee Preview. Traveling to Knoxville will be Virginia, Centenary and Miami (Ohio). The Cavaliers went 20-11 last season and finished fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 15-7 mark. Centenary was 12-26, while the RedHawks, Patrick's alma mater (1983), went 18-13.
"Our overall preseason schedule will test and prepare us for SEC matches," Patrick said. "Virginia and Miami (Ohio) come into our tournament as two experienced teams representing good conferences. Our tournament will be a great start to our season."
The Big Orange then heads west to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for the second time in a three-year span to play the host Lions, North Carolina and USC. Each team participating in this tournament qualified for NCAA play last season, with the Trojans (second round) and Tennessee advancing the furthest. LMU was 19-11 and UNC went 23-10, while USC was 17-11 on the 2005 season.
"The Loyola Marymount Tournament will pit us against three teams who could easily be ranked in the top 15 in the country," Patrick said. "They will test us and give us a tremendous amount of feedback on where we are developmentally early on in the year."
A trip to Pittsburgh is the next stop for Tennessee, where the Panthers will host a four-team tournament. Joining the Panthers and Lady Vols will be Marshall and Lehigh. Pitt was 17-13 in 2005 and the Thundering Herd went 26-6 and advanced to NCAA Tournament play, while Lehigh posted a 7-27 mark.
"Then we go to Pittsburgh to play Pitt, one of the top teams in the Big East every year, and Marshall, who is the defending Conference USA champion. They will really test us before we start our SEC schedule."
At this point, Tennessee returns home to begin the Southeastern Conference slate, which will not include a conference tournament for the first time in league history (the SEC has named a league champion in the sport of volleyball every year since 1979). The regular-season champion will earn the conference's automatic berth into the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
"Overall, before we even scheduled our out-of-conference matches, we knew our schedule was going to be tougher in 2006 because the SEC has taken some dramatic steps in becoming better and stronger," Patrick said. "With the double-round robin schedule in place for the first time, we will be tested weekly due to the strength of our conference from top to bottom. The fact that the SEC was ranked as one of the top five in the country at the end of last year (fifth in the RPI) bodes well for us as we prepare for postseason play."
With a solid corps of returning players and seven talented newcomers, the Lady Vols are looking forward to another winning season. The groundwork has been laid and all that is left are the finishing touches as the Big Orange continues "Building on Success."