Sweet relief for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee (7-4-1) finally found its first conference win of the year, topping Kentucky (5-6-2) with a score of 2-0.
The Lady Vols are now 1-3 in the SEC, as Kentucky falls to 0-4.
Here are the highlights.
Burying the past
Following their loss to Alabama, Tennessee senior defender Maya Neal had a strong message for her team: “Bury the Past.”
To demonstrate that message, Neal brought a shovel to the team’s first practice following their third-straight SEC loss.
“I think it was off to a great start, from the first whistle to the last,” Neal said. “Being able to bury the past with every voice and every man on this team.”
Head coach Brian Pensky also shared his thoughts on the message.
“They talked about burying the past,” Pensky said. “Maya Neal was kind of the originator for that. That was probably the toughest week she’s had since she’s been here, in terms of three gut wrenching losses.”
Tennessee had that same shovel on the bench for their win over Kentucky.
The Lady Vols' last game against Alabama proved to be a brutal test of durability as multiple players were injured.
Senior MA Vignola, Junior Wrenne French, Freshmen Sonia Ouchene Salón, and Alicia Donley were susceptible to injuries.
Coach Pensky said that both Salera Jordan and Wrenne French suffered torn ACLs and will not play for the remainder of the season. Pensky also said that Donley tore ligaments in her ankle and would be out for a considerable amount of time.
Vignola and Salón were both active in Sunday’s matchup against Kentucky, with Vignola receiving her usual starting nod and a goal.
Senior CLASS Award candidate Katie Cousins has also been plagued with injury, keeping her from Tennessee's first two SEC contests. Cousins returned off the bench against Alabama and started against Kentucky, which was her first start since beginning conference play.
“One of the biggest unsung heroes within our group is Claire Franks,” Pensky said. “We got Katie Cousins back again today for about 35, 40 minutes, but Claire has stepped in and played that defensive center midfielder role for four straight games. In all four league games she’s played about 90 minutes each game.”
The Lady Vols offense returned to its previous form Sunday, with two goals on three shots in the first half, and 13 shots overall.
The first goal came from Illinois native Isabella Cook in the 20th minute. Cook found herself alone in the middle of the box after a cross from freshman Colleen McIllvenna. Cook took her shot to the bottom right corner of the goal which the Wildcat’s keeper was unable to stop.
The second and final goal of the game came from Vignola. Vignola broke away from defenders and took her shot into the bottom right of the net as Kentucky’s goalkeeper charged to challenge her. She was unable to block the shot as Vignola found the back of the net.
“It was a good team win today,” Vignola said. “We wanted to come out today and get the three points today, and that’s what we did. We came out wanting to play with fire in our hair and that’s what we did."
The Lady Vols’ hair may not have been on fire, but their feet were as Vignola lead them to a two goal win.
Tennessee entered the year with high hopes and an injection of youth. They began the year with only one loss, and a spot in nearly every national poll. Since then, Tennessee has faced some tough setbacks.
The Lady Vols have faced many injuries and their strengths became weaknesses in their first slate of SEC games.
Tennessee began the season with a high-powered offense, totaling close to 15 shots per game. They were scoring nearly three goals per game and shutting down opposing offenses. Since their first conference test though, the Lady Vols had struggled to find that same high shot count. When they did, they were rarely on target.
That changed on Sunday.
Tennessee kept the pressure up for 90 minutes, not allowing Kentucky to find very many close shots. They found two goals and six shots on goal.
They continually kept the possession in their favor, and drew the ball to Kentucky’s side of the field all game.
“As we’ve experienced, winning in this league is hard,” Pensky said. “Any win, any points in this league are great. It comes down to having a tough mind and then making plays.”
Tennessee will look to keep their momentum rolling into the end of the season, and into the SEC tournament where they can attempt to make a deep run.
Tennessee welcomes the Georgia Bulldogs to Rocky Top for their next matchup. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10 and can be streamed on SEC Network Plus.