The Tennessee Vols fall season in 2020, the year of the pandemic, could be described as a bitter sweet success. The Lady Vols were crowned SEC East champs after a thrilling win over perennial powerhouse South Carolina, but after a first round bye fell to a talented Vanderbilt team in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
“We were all pretty shell shocked at the result,” head coach Brian Pensky said.
The loss seemed to sting a little extra given the fact that the Vols had already emerged victorious against Vanderbilt earlier in the season. However, the loss did not demoralize the team as they attacked the off-season with vengeance.
“Honestly we left them alone a lot because the girls knew what they needed to do,” Pensky said. “January 20th, the first day back we had fitness testing and they crushed it.”
This spring, the Vols look to build off their stout defense led by senior center back Wrenne French and goalie Lindsey Romig who earned SEC All-freshman honors back in 2019.
“Right now we’re just ready to be back on the field,” Romig said. “We’re just super fortunate to be able to play.”
The sophomore standout allowed just 12 goals in eight games in the fall, producing two clean sheets for the team while she emerged as a team leader.
“She carries herself with a little bit of swagger, and our girls have told me, when they walk on the field next to Lindsey they feel better,” Pensky said.
As Tennessee hopes to remain strong on the defensive end, they look up the pitch to try and build a more balanced attack to produce more goals. The Vols offense struggled at points in the fall season as they were only able to produce multiple goals in three of their nine games, and were never able to hit the three goal mark.
One of the bright spots for the Tennessee offense was junior Mackenzie George. The California native was a workhorse for the Vols, earning second team All-SEC honors in the fall despite only scoring two goals and two assists.
“She’s just a grinder,” Pensky said of George..
George transferred to UT prior to her sophomore year after she was named Big West player of the year as a freshman. She immediately made an impact by leading the Lady Vols in minutes in 2019 and started all nine games in the fall.
“She’s a player you want to play for and the type of player you just want to play with,” Pensky said.
George won’t be the only one supplying offense this season as the Lady Vols also return SEC All-Freshman selection Jaida Thomas. The redshirt freshman led the team in goals in the fall (three) all of which were game winners.
“I think Mackenzie and Jaida really started to form a good relationship in the fall,” Pensky said.
The team also hopes to find a spark from freshman forward Maddie Eskin.
The Lady Vols open up their season at home Sunday against Gardner Webb at 4 p.m. ET. Tennessee’s spring schedule may ease up a little from the fall’s SEC only gauntlet, but the team still has some marquee matchups with ACC schools UNC, Wake Forest and Louisville, along with Big East champion Xavier.
“We have about four or five big games on our schedule, but obviously the one that everyone has their eyes on is North Carolina,” Pensky said. “That’s the game that our girls have circled in sharpie.”