I say this every year, but wow, has the season gone by fast! (And not just because it was only the second time this decade less than 30 regular season matches were scheduled.) Tomorrow will be the last home match for four seniors. I know it’s the night before Thanksgiving, but if you can make it out to show them your appreciation please do — and bring all the relatives that are in town!
I write about stats all the time, so today we’ll look back at the seniors with photos, videos, and quotes from their past and some thoughts from me — and, OK, maybe a few numbers as well too!
• Former UT coach Rob Patrick: “She’s quick and athletic and someone who can cover the court. Combined with her elite setting skills, she’ll be able to keep our team in system. She’s one of the quickest setters I’ve ever seen play. She can set every tempo ball with great ease and has the ability to better the ball on a great range of digs. She has the experience, athleticism and intangibles to compete for playing time right away.”
• PrepVolleyball: “Yes, Hansen is an elite setter. But even more so, she is simply an outstanding volleyball player. She serves tough, plays great defense and can even hit with power and range. Setting the ball, Hansen knows exactly who her attackers are and prioritizes her choices for every play. This leads to great decision which, combined with her consistent location, allows her hitters to excel. Hansen can set any tempo and has the rare ability to make in-system plays with out-of-system balls. She has competed at high-level Rancho Valley since she was a freshman and has played up an age group for most of her club career. Her competitive, winning attitude, coupled with great skills, should help Hansen make a profound impact at Tennessee, where she has committed.”
• High school coach Tracy Talbott: “She’s at the top. And it’s not just because she’s athletic, but she’s become an amazing leader… High school is a whole different level than college and I think she recognizes that. I don’t think she’s complacent. She’s driving herself to bring something to Tennessee that makes them different with her there.”
• Hansen on choosing UT: “I loved the coach and the players and the whole environment. They have a good mix of players from all over the United States… I want to make an impact in a big way. And I want us to get back to the NCAA tournament.”
As TV commentators trying to explain volleyball to new viewers always like to say, “the setter is the quarterback of the team!” The person in that position directs the offense, making them a de facto leader for the players on the court and a face of the team to fans. Besides skill, experience and stability are also important attributes for the person holding that job. And unfortunately, Tennessee volleyball has not had those last two traits in a setter for a long time… until Sedona Hansen came along. Believe it or not, she is the first Lady Vol setter to play four seasons on Rocky Top since Julie Knytych left in 2005! She’s been a dependable presence — playing all but 5 matches during her career and appearing in over 95% of the sets played in that time. (Last week she moved into the UT top ten for most sets played during the rally-scoring era.) She’s left her mark all over the assists and digs charts — and the double-doubles list for doing both at the same time. Hansen has brought a determination to her role that has kept the team focused when things haven’t gone their way. But she also has a drive to succeed that has been really fun to watch. (Especially when she goes up for a kill or a solo block!) While we may be able to replace her skill on the court, recapturing her leadership, maturity, and dedication will be a lot harder.
• Hansen in 2016:
• Patrick: “Tessa is a strong, long powerful hitter who plays high above the net. She has the ability to play all three front row positions and has the ability to produce kills due to her powerful offensive game. She also will bring an experienced game and has one of the toughest serves I have seen for any incoming freshman.”
• PrepVolleyball: “[I] was impressed by the height and talent of Carolina Union middle… Grubbs has committed to play the University of Tennessee this fall and her play makes it very evident why.”
• High school coach coach Gina Farley: “Tessa has developed into a top player in an incredibly short amount of time. She was a defensive player’s worst nightmare, hitting over blocks and coming up with huge attacks sent straight to the floor… [Her] experience and leadership is pushing this team. It makes the younger girls better.”
• Grubbs on choosing UT: “When I was there it really felt like a family. The coaches were very welcoming… The atmosphere was great.”
There are a couple of fans who occasionally sit behind me in the stands at Tennessee home volleyball games. And there are two things they can’t stand, one of which is attacks that aren’t hit as hard as possible. “C’mon! Kill it! Spike the ball!”, they complain! Yes, we know that getting kills isn’t just about raw power, but more finesse. Hit the ball as hard as you can at someone and they have a chance to dig it up. Dink the ball to a spot no one is at and you’re going to win the point. But I do see where they’re coming from. Watching a player hit a rocket is undeniably cool. And no one has been more fun to watch doing that in years than Tessa Grubbs. With both strength and volleyball IQ, she has put her name all over the UT record books. She should become just the 5th player in school history to have 4.10+ kills per set in two different seasons (and just the 2nd in the past 17 years). No one in 14 years had more kills than she did in the opening match this year vs #6 Illinois. She’s top ten at UT in career kills (top three in the rally scoring era), top five in career kills per set (first in the rally scoring era), and way too many more top ten charts than I can list here. What makes it all the more impressive is she’s done all this while fighting through some injuries overs the years. Her strength through adversity has served her team well on the court — and it’s a quality that will serve her well in whatever lies ahead in her future.
• Grubbs in 2016:
• Patrick: “Alyssa is a powerful, dynamic athlete, and she brings good volleyball skills as well. She has the ability to play any of the front row positions and will be a force at the net early in her career. Her blocking skills will be very advanced for a freshman coming in. She has the ability to get kills.”
• PrepVolleyball: “Played well… looking good… will garner headlines”
• Andreno on choosing UT: “I kinda just fell in love. I started walking around campus and it just felt like home to me. I met all the girls and I loved them. Academically, it was everything that I wanted. I wanted to play big-time in the SEC.”
Big-time college athletics is serious stuff. Scholarships are at stake. You’re on national television. You have to keep your grades up more than most other students while attending practices, workouts, and matches all over the country. Injuries are a constant worry. Fans in the stands scream at you for not hitting the ball hard enough. Weird dudes on the internet write about you. So with all that pressure that could be weighing them down, it’s always nice to see student-athletes who are able to have fun. And Alyssa Andreno sure looks like she enjoys what she’s doing! I don’t think there’s any other player on the court that likes seeing herself and her teammates doing well and winning as much as she does — which makes her so much fun to watch. And she’s had a lot to cheer about: she’s #20 all-time at UT in hitting percentage, #16 in career blocks, and #15 all-time in blocks per set. And she’s played in all but 7 matches during her career. That’s all great, of course, but what makes her truly impressive is she has handled all the stressors of SEC athletics, played extremely well, not missed hardly any court time all while also being a high achiever in the classroom and in the community. She’s made the honor roll every year, earned a team Academic Achiever Award, was named to the SEC Community Service Team for her many hours of volunteer work, was selected to the VOLeaders Academy which cultivates student-athlete leaders with classes, retreats, and a service immersion experience that sent her to Ecuador! How does she do it?! I don’t know, but she seems to do it all with a smile on her face — something I’m sure Tennessee fans will miss seeing on the court next year.
• Andreno in 2016:
• Patrick: We’re excited to add a Tennessee native to our roster, especially one with the athletic ability that Asha possesses. She will bolster our back court play. She’s already an accomplished defensive player who has some untapped potential.”
• PrepVolleyball: “Phillips’ vision and intelligence create unique mismatches for her opponents front row and back. A strong athlete, Phillips is a club libero with exceptional passing gifts. Look for her to be a high-level collegiate libero.”
• High school coach Shawn Robinson: “She’s just a very hard worker on and off the court and she gets her things done. She’s very self-sufficient so it sets her up to be very successful no matter what she does… You can put her anywhere. That just shows her athleticism. But to be honest, her natural position is defense. Her athleticism allows her to be able to hit in the front row. She’s been a more dynamic outside hitter compared to middle. But I think her natural position is on defense.”
• Phillips on choosing UT: “I had a visit and went to a camp and just really liked it down there, so when they called and offered me, it was kind of a no-brainer for me to go there. I’ve always been a big Vols’ fan and my family has too, so they’re extremely excited that I’ll be going there.”
I’m not sure I’ve really ever said this directly on the site before, but I love back row volleyball! When I returned to Knoxville after an almost 10 year absence and decided to get back into following the game, the Tennessee libero was Chloe Goldman. So I was spoiled by some really good defense, which in turn made it one of my favorite parts of the game. While it seems a lot of people pass over liberos and defensive specialists on the roster (especially when it comes to awards), I can’t wait to read about them. And here at Tennessee we’ve got a solid DS in Asha Phillips. I love seeing that rotation when Phillips is in there with the libero at the same time because I know it’s going to be a lot harder for the opponent to get any ball on the floor. (Even more so when a good defensive setter is back there too!) How much is she relied on by the coaches? She’s been sent out in over 60% of the matches played during her time at Tennessee. She’s a very trusted resource. But fans might not know it from looking at Phillips’ stats here on my site. Unfortunately I can’t keep track of everything because UT occasionally changes what stats they provide year to year, so I stick to the basics. But here’s an example. Head over to the official site and you’ll note the team is tracking receptions on their stats page this year. Six Lady Vols have at last 100 reception attempts on the year. Phillips has the best reception percentage of them all. But she doesn’t just play defense back there. She’s also a reliable serving specialist. Remember the fans behind me I mentioned earlier. Their other pet peeve is missed serves. Ohhhh man, they hate them! I don’t have the stats to back it up, but Phillips is one of the only players I don’t worry about on the service line. Match point? Pshhhw, not going to stress if they send her back there! Whether serving, receiving, or passing, having such a dependable player on the bench you can send out when you need to finish off an opponent, save a game that’s getting away from you, or just calm things down a bit so you can get back in system has been a wonderful advantage for the Lady Vols the past four years.
• Phillips in 2016:The Daily Press, International Children's Games, UT Sports, FMHS, The Herald, MaxPreps, Carolina Union VBC, Metro VBC, USA Today, Free Lance-Star