Nov. 30, 2011
BY BRIAN RICE
KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee head coach Rob Patrick reminded his team on Sunday night that it's prepared for whatever awaits in the postseason.
While preparing the team for the run that comes next -- beginning with a first-round matchup against Duke on Thursday at 7 p.m. -- Patrick also summed up a season marked by injuries, a difficult schedule, and, of course, the program's first outright SEC championship.
"We've had a lot of obstacles thrown at us," sophomore Kelsey Robinson said before rattling off a list of the injuries that have affected players this season, herself included. "We've had to play great teams, we've had to play when we're exhausted, and we've played through everything together.
"Just to be able to get through things like that as a team gives you confidence going in to brutal matches, when you have to be there for two and a half hours, when you know you're going to play five sets and it's going to come down to 15-13. We definitely have that advantage, even though we're young, but we've been through a lot."
Robinson led a team that lost senior outside hitter and returning All-American Kayla Jeter to a torn ACL three days before the team's opening match. With Jeter on the shelf for the year and other top returnees, including the team's only other senior Kelsey Mahoney, slowed at various points by injury, Tennessee settled on a rotation that featured three freshmen, setter Mary Pollmiller, outside Tiffany Baker and middle Shealyn Kolosky, in the starting lineup with another, Nikki Brice, as the primary defensive specialist off the bench.
"It's helped to have freshmen that aren't afraid to speak," Robinson said. "I'm a captain as a sophomore, why shouldn't a freshman be able to talk? People have been able to take charge on the court when things aren't going our way. We don't always have to look to a senior leader to say `Get us through this,' somebody else can make a play."
"The great thing about this team is that they've been able to not be clouded by a lot of other `stuff,'" Patrick said. "They've really bought into the way we run our program, they've bought into our scouting reports that we put together they've bought into the philosophy that we've put together. You have to give a lot of credit to the upperclassmen and the leaders like Kelsey that have really influenced in a very positive way the freshmen and showing them what Tennessee Volleyball is all about."
Duke awaits UT in the first round, and the Blue Devils have a bit of history against Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament in Knoxville. The Blue Devils ended the Lady Vols' 2006 season, 3-1, in a first round match and returned in 2009 for another first-round match that Tennessee won 3-1.
Duke earned its seventh consecutive NCAA bid with a 21-8 record and returned five starters from a 2010 team that advanced to the Elite Eight.
"They have a very experienced team," Patrick said. "Like this whole year, we're going to be playing against a team with a lot more experience than us. We always try and prepare our team in preseason tournaments to be prepared for the SEC, but we also look longer-term at being prepared for playing in the NCAA Tournament."
Ohio State and Middle Tennessee State meet in the other first round match at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Thursday's winners will play Friday at 7 p.m. to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.
For Robinson, the site of the NCAA opener is another motivating factor.
"It's a big deal to play on your home court," she said. "Last year, we had to play Indiana (in the second round) at their place, where they hadn't lost. It's great to play on our court, with our fans and their incredible support."