The 2020-21 volleyball season was far from average compared to years past. For the first time in NCAA history, division one volleyball had to hold matches during the spring semester in effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Tennessee volleyball’s unusual season can be summarized through three statements:
An Unusual Circumstance
Tennessee volleyball was confident it could thrive in the uncertainty that was to come, despite the inevitable hiccups along the way.
It wasn’t long before that inevitability became a reality. Two series were postponed and later canceled throughout the season, both during spring play.
The first was a season-opening road contest against Texas A&M after a positive test caused a brief shutdown of the Aggies’ program, something that was becoming commonplace across the nation. The second was a pair of road matches against Ole Miss that were delayed, later postponed, and finally canceled amid dangerous winter weather conditions across most of the southeastern states.
The Lady Vols, after starting 4-4 in the fall, finished the season 12-8 with a three-game win streak to end spring play. Tennessee lost just two games at home in the spring, both against No. 7 Florida, while also picking up huge match victories over Mizzou and a red-hot LSU squad that had won four straight before heading to Knoxville, dropping both to Tennessee, 3-1 and 3-2, and ending its season on a considerably lower note.
“I am really proud of the whole team,” head coach Eve-Rackham Watt said. “This has been a group who has stuck together, found every way possible to play, really sacrificed for each other, and stayed disciplined. There was a total team effort and commitment to this season when it would have been really easy to not do that.”
A Team Effort
As with any college team, the Lady Vols relied on their upperclassmen in a big way to begin spring play. The junior duo of Lily Felts and Danielle Mahaffey helped set the precedent in their first match back for the new semester, combining for 31 kills to solidify a statement win over All-SEC Kylie Deberg and No. 16 Missouri.
It didn’t take long for the Lady Vols to show that they had several offensive weapons in their arsenal to accompany Felts and Mahaffey. In match two against top-ranked Missouri, sophomore Morgahn Fingall recorded a then career-high 16 kills in route to another upset victory against the Tigers, who seemed to be able to do nothing but watch it all unfold.
Fingall was far from her best game as a Lady Vol. Throughout the season, the Virginia native would break her kill record twice more, ending with a staggering 42 kills in two matches against LSU to finish the season. Fingall finished the season second in kills for the Lady Vols with 185, right behind Felts with 242.
Freshman Jasmine Brooks would prove to be a threat as well, posting seven double-digit kill performances throughout the season while also adding 29 blocks.
Ava Bell and sophomore Libero Madison Bryant led the team’s defensive effort. Bell and Bryant finished at the top of team rankings in blocks and digs, respectively, while Bryant sits atop the SEC with an impressive 3.85 digs per set. Bell contributed heavily to the team’s late season push, adding 18 blocks in three matches.
A Strong Finish
Tennessee played its best volleyball to close the season. The NCAA tournament window seemed to be closing quickly after a loss at Arkansas dropped the Lady Vols to 9-8, a milestone that was already that much harder with only 48 teams entering the field out of 334 total schools. This is 16 less than the usual 64 team bracket, which had to be modified to adhere to COVID-19 protocols.
Tennessee went on to beat Arkansas 3-1 in the next match, before handling LSU in its home series to solidify a three-match win streak to end spring play. With these victories, Tennessee’s tournament chances are legitimate, especially to a committee that values improvement as the season progresses.
"We are really hopeful and feel like we've done all we can do to put ourselves in the best position to make the NCAA tournament,” Rackham said. “I think that this team is deserving, that our resume is good enough. We've done all we can to control what we can control, and now we’ll leave it up to the committee.”
In a normal season the Lady Vols would be comfortably in the field at 12-8, but resume wins against Missouri and South Carolina add to the Lady Vols’ argument for a spot in the tournament. As for now, all Tennessee volleyball can do is wait for the selection show on Sunday, April 4.