After dropping its last game of the season on Wednesday, the Tennessee volleyball team looks to bounce back in the postseason.
On Sunday, Tennessee (19-9, 11-7 SEC) was selected to face off against North Carolina (21-8, 10-8 ACC) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. It is the first time since 2018 that the Lady Vols have qualified to be in the Tournament.
“I think the biggest thing for this group and this team is that they made a goal at the beginning of the year that this is where they wanted to be,” head coach Eve Rackham-Watt said. “It was a really proud moment for the team. I'm just excited to get started, and we're prepping for our first match on Friday.”
The road to the tournament was not easy. It was the Lady Vols’ first season back in a little over a year due to the pandemic.
Tennessee matched up against some of the top volleyball teams in the nation early in the season. The Lady Vols faced three top-10 nationally ranked teams in No. 9 Baylor, No. 7 Pitt and No. 9 Purdue. Tennessee upset Baylor in five sets but fell to both Pitt and Purdue.
The Lady Vols dominated early, taking down their opponents with ease. Through the first 10 games, Tennessee managed to sweep its opponents seven times.
Entering SEC play, Tennessee continued to climb the national ranking each week. It wasn't until later in conference play when the Lady Vols hit a wall.
The team suffered three straight losses and struggled in the latter half of the season. In the end, the SEC produced five other teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee hopes that the experience gained over the season will translate into a successful tournament run.
“We've played five of the top-16 teams already, and we've already played a number of teams that are already in the tournament,” Rackham-Watt said. “I feel really good about that, I think that team feels really good about that. The experience we have against teams that are in the field and knowing we've beaten some of them and competed really well with some of them help. We start this weekend 0-0 just like everyone else but know we can draw from that experience.”
Two Lady Vols, graduate student Breanna Runnels and senior setter Natalie Hayward, were selected for the All-SEC team this year. It is the first time in their careers they were selected to the All-SEC team.
Runnels was a true offensive machine throughout the season leading the team in kills, (389) kills per set (3.69 and total attempts (975). In just her first year with Tennessee, she became a key part of the team's success.
Hayward has been nothing short of consistent all year. Being the team's starting setter, she has been able to feed Tennessee’s offense time and time again. Hayward leads the team in assists with 1093 on the year.
“Bre came from a school where she was an all-conference player. And being able to do it in this league and this year we were really proud of her,” Rackham-Watt said. “And Natalie, I don't think people were thinking a year ago her being one of the best setters in the league. I was so happy for her. It came as a shock to both of them when I called and let them know — they were both really surprised.”
The Lady Vols are focused and ready for a chance to bring the national title to Knoxville. The farthest that Tennessee has gone in the NCAA Tournament was a Final Four appearance in 2005.