The Tennessee volleyball team is off to a strong start to the 2021 season, currently ranked No. 21 in the country with only two top-10 losses. One of the main reasons for the Lady Vols’ early success is graduate transfer Breanna Runnels.
Runnels grew up in Bakersfield, California, where she was a star at Bakersfield Volleyball Club and Independence High School. Runnels was a two time captain, two time all-area selection and the 2014 team MVP.
“Growing up I also played basketball and ran track, but volleyball was always my niche so I stuck with it,” Runnels said. “Playing at Bakersfield Volleyball Club, I looked up to some of the older players, and my coach really helped pave the way for me to continue my career.”
That’s exactly what Runnels did – she attended Colorado State as a freshman. Runnels redshirted her first season, where she refined her game and improved her hitting so she could make an impact when it was her time.
“Redshirting was difficult at first because I didn’t understand what it meant,” Runnels said. “But I think that was the year my game really started to develop.”
When Runnels finally did hit the floor at Colorado State, she did not disappoint. In her redshirt freshman year, Runnels led the team with 367 kills – a school record for kills as a freshman and also second in school history by any player in one season.
Runnels’ performance was good enough to earn her 2017 Mountain West Conference Newcomer of the Year along with All-Conference honors. Runnels continued this success throughout her career at Colorado State. In her sophomore campaign, she led Colorado State and the Mountain West Conference with 454 kills, which stood as the most in a single season in the modern-scoring era.
She led the team again in kills as both a junior and senior, earned All-Conference honors all four seasons, and in 2019 was named to AVCA All-Pacific North Region team.
Runnels wasted no time making her presence felt in her first season on Rocky Top. In her very first match wearing orange and white, Runnels tied with teammate Morgahn Fingall for the team lead with 17 kills.
“I’d say the strength of this team has been our hitting on offense,” Tennessee head coach Eve Rackham Watt said. “We really have multiple options for the first time in a while and that has really helped us.”
Runnels is currently second on the team in kills behind Fingall, who is the current SEC leader in that category.
Despite her massive contribution on the court, Runnels' impact goes far beyond just the stat sheet.
“We hit the lottery with Breanna,” Rackham Watt said. “You see what she does for us from a volleyball standpoint, but people don’t notice what she’s done for us as a great teammate who works really hard.”
When it comes to living on the East Coast, Runnels has made a seamless transition to life as a student athlete here in Knoxville.
“I try to make a home out of anywhere I go,” Runnels said. “I moved around quite a bit while I was younger so I know what it’s like to transition, and being a part of this team is important because I get a piece of family here.”