Anticipation was in the air at Regal Soccer Stadium on Friday night.
The anticipation of a new season, anticipation of another tournament run, and the anticipation of expectation.
Following a 2017 campaign which saw an NCAA Tournament berth and second round exit, No. 25 Tennessee prepared for the 2018 season with a home exhibition match against conference foe Alabama.
While the game counted for nothing, it certainly served as a valuable opportunity for playing time and experience.
“We played eight to nine kids on the backline,” Pensky said. “Again, experimenting with a lot of different players. We played three different players at right back and two different players at left back.
“Now’s the chance to get to look at players and we learned a lot tonight. That’s what exhibitions are for.”
The exhibition also served as a chance to prepare Tennessee for the upcoming regular season, and with an opponent like Alabama, it provided a chance to prepare for the competitive SEC.
“It’s a reminder of the competitiveness of the league,” Pensky said. “How every moment matters within a game and every game. The league just keeps getting better. We can’t take anybody for granted.”
For the 2018 version of the Vols, senior leadership abounds. Tennessee is led by five returning seniors from last season’s tournament squad, including forward Meghan Flynn, midfielder Rylie O’Keefe, forward Khadija Shaw, midfielder Ann Bialczak and goalkeeper Shae Yanez.
As one of those leaders, Khadija Shaw was just glad to be competing again in front of a large home crowd at Regal Stadium.
“It is always good to play at home in front of fans and people that push you,” Shaw said. “We come out here and we just want to play. We just want to get better. It’s about preparation.”
The story of the first half was defense. Tennessee combined for five shot attempts in the half from Flynn, junior Katie Cousins, Bialczak and two narrow misses from Shaw just before the intermission.
The Crimson Tide controlled the ball early, but were also unable to capitalize, missing on a total of eight shots in the first half. Tennessee senior goalkeeper Shae Yanez made four saves in the first half.
After the scoreless first half, the defensive stalemate continued deep into the second period, but it was Alabama who finally broke the scoring drought with a goal at the 4:33 mark of the second half. The Crimson Tide’s Taylor Hubbard scored to make it a 1-0 lead.
Being down in the final minutes of a scrimmage did not affect the urgency of the Vols, and while they were not able to tie the game before the end of regulation and pull off a win for the fans, the competitiveness was there until the final whistle.
“It’s very urgent,” Shaw said of the will to win in the final minutes. “Alabama is a really good team. Obviously, we wanted the win. It’s a learning process. We find out what went wrong and try to go back and correct it.”
Offensively for Tennessee, the Vols attempted a total of 17 shots in both periods, while Yanez came up with 7 saves on 15 shots defensively.
“We had some very good looks,” Pensky said. “But, we didn’t score any goals. This is a game that rewards you when you don’t deserve it and a game that punishes you when you’ve done OK. We created some really good chances, but not all of those chances went in.”
With regular season action less than a week away, Pensky feels confident in his team’s focus.
“I think we have a pretty confident group,” Pensky said. “We talk about hunger and I think we’re pretty good in the hunger category. We wanted to win the game. This game doesn’t go on our record, but next Thursday goes on our record.”
Tennessee will look to get off to a winning start when they play host to St. Johns on Thursday. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. at Regal Soccer Stadium.