Saturday, November 27, 2021

Looking back at the 2021 season seniors, part 2

My daughter’s very first volleyball team was part of a third/fourth grade neighborhood club league here in Knoxville. Players were basically randomly assigned to teams at this age. And, wow, did my kid hit the jackpot! The coach of this team would go on to win seven state high school championships. The parent of two of the kids went on to be an assistant coach at UT where he’d win an SEC Championship. One player is currently on the roster at Pepperdine. Another an All-American at Nebraska. And yet another went on to become an All-SEC player at Tennessee — Lily Felts. (So technically I’ve been following Felts’ career longer than any other player in my 15 years reporting on Tennessee!)

Felts hit the ground running back in 2018, hitting 11 kills, getting 9 digs, and 3 blocks vs a ranked opponent in her very first match. She was the second most used attacker on the team that year, and helped lead the Lady Vols to their first NCAA Tournament in six years. After trailing 2-0 in the first round of the tourney, she went on to lead the team in kills while UT mounted a furious comeback. Her kills, attacks, and point totals in that match are still career highs. At the annual athletics department awards, she was named the Female Rookie of the Year for all Tennessee sports. In her sophomore year, she led the team in aces, becoming just the third Lady Vol in a decade to reach 24 or more in a season. As a junior she led the team in kills, attacks, aces, and points. As a six-rotation player, she’d always been potent on defense. But she really went to the next level all-around, picking up double digit kills in 14 out of 20 matches, and 10 matches with double-digit digs. She earned All-SEC accolades for her efforts. Her senior season has seen more of the same, with 14 double-digit kills matches, and 17 double-digit digs matches. She’s hit .250+ 14 times in 2021.

In her career, she’s notched the 8th most double-doubles of any Lady Vol in the rally-scoring era — and the 4th most of any non-setter. Felts is only 16 kills away from becoming the 22nd Tennessee player to ever reach 1,000, and 86 attacks away from becoming the 16th UT player with 3,000 attempts. She’ll also finish as one of the top 20 in digs in program history. And she’s 3 aces away from reaching the school rally-scoring era top ten list.

As a local fan, it’s always special when a local player stays home to play for her local team. It’s even better when that player becomes a major part of the team’s success. But there is nothing like getting to watch a player you watched play with your own kid in elementary school mature into a hometown star. Lily Felts is a wonderful example for young girls sitting in the stands here in Knoxville, and hopefully many of them will want to grow up to wear the orange and white as amazingly as she has.

  • UT Head Coach Rob Patrick: “Lily is one of the elite six rotation players in the country. Her fierce competitive nature will add to the already positive energy of our current team. We are excited about adding a player who finished No. 2 in career high school kills in the state of Tennessee to our offensive arsenal. Lily will have a huge impact on our program due to her abilities to control the ball off her platform at an elite level, along with the ability to place the ball on any spot on the court.”
  • Lily Felts on why she chose Tennessee: “Playing for my hometown school and at my parents’ alma mater is a gift. I always wanted to go to UT growing up, and when I started playing volleyball, I knew I wanted to be an athlete here. There’s nothing better than getting to step on the court that I watched my idols play on and getting to walk the campus that I explored before football games as a child. This school is rich in tradition, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Danielle Mahaffey is the epitome of a hard worker — and every season she has been here, she has become a better and better blocker because of it. Her freshman blocks per set was a solid for a rookie 0.57, that grew to 0.67 her sophomore year, then to 0.94 last season. As a senior, that phenomenal growth has soared to 1.40 blocks per set, which stands as the 5th best ever in a season at Tennessee — and the top average of the past 15 years.

In a match this past spring, Mahaffey put down an incredible 7 solo blocks in a single match, smashing the previous UT rally-scoring era record of 4. With 46 total, she has the fourth most solo blocks at UT since 2001. In September, she had 12 total blocks in a match, which was the 7th most at UT since 2001, and the most since 2012. She’s a single block away from joining the school season blocks top 20 list. And rates as having the 17th most career blocks all-time.

But she doesn’t just block, she’s also a phenomenal hitter for the Lady Vols. In 51 matches of the 103 she has played in, she hit .250 or better! In 9 matches this calendar year she has hit over .500, capped by an .800 hitting performance with no errors. This season, Mahaffey is hitting .381, good for the 4th best season of all-time at Tennessee. Her career .270 ranks 18th all-time.

Replacing a player like Danielle Mahaffey is going to be tough. But replacing a player with skills and her work ethic, even tougher still.

  • UT Head Coach Rob Patrick: “Danielle will bring elite-level blocking skills to the program. She is another addition to this class who has the ability to be a high-level six-rotation player. Another physical and athletic young lady who can hit on either pin while also being an offensive force from the back row. Danielle’s quiet demeanor belies her highly competitive nature.”
  • Danielle Mahaffey on why she chose Tennessee: “It’s amazing to know that [my aunt] was here before me, making history.”

With a name like hers, it’s serendipitous that Rocky Perinar came to play for Tennessee. In her freshman season vs a ranked San Diego team played in California, Perinar led the team to victory with a match leading 15 kills, while hitting .387. In matches against two other ranked teams that year, she had double digit kills in each and hit .333 and .346. Perinar got to share the court with her sister in a match vs Alabama in 2018. Her 14 kills in the win still stand as her 2nd best career high. She capped her first season off with 5 kills, 4 blocks, and a .333 hitting percentage in the second round of the NCAA Tournament vs a seeded Washington State team. After that year, while not usually starting, she’s proven that she has a steady hand and a solid volleyball IQ when coaches need a relief player for a teammate having trouble, or as someone to mix things up when the opponent has their number. On the court in just over 50 matches in her career, Perinar has hit over .250 in a third of them. On her senior night last week, she set a career high for aces, digs, and hitting percentage.

I would love to have seen Rocky Perinar play in many more matches than she got a chance to. Despite that, coaches and fans know that when she was on the court, she was always as solid as a ro— …I mean that, coaches and fans always knew that they could always count on good ole Rocky— …wait wait! Surely I can do this without resorting to a bad pun!

  • UT Head Coach Rob Patrick: “Rocky is another member of this class who will bring a physicality that will allow her to compete at a high level at the net early in her career. She has the ability to play all six rotations and attack successfully on both pins and through the back row. She presents a physical net presence also with her blocking. We are excited about Rocky’s potential as a back row player.”
  • Rocky Perinar on why she chose Tennessee: “The people and community that surround and support you make Tennessee a special place to be.”

Maybe I’m just weird, but I love defensive volleyball. Anyone can go up and muscle a ball over the net really hard. (OK, not just anyone, but let me finish my point!) But digging up an attack? That requires some skill. So when a really strong defensive player like Giana Pellizzon is on the court, I’m watching the back row just as intently as the front. And while the libero may get the most attention, I get happy when the libero has a defensive specialist back there with them at the same time. Pellizzon has been that go to DS the past few years and the combination of her and one of the Madison’s (Coulter and Bryant) back there since 2018 has been a joy for this defensive fan to watch.

As much fun as I’ve had watching UT defense in recent years, I’ve unfortunately had to deal with a volleyball pet peeve of mine as well: missed serves. I get it, they’re fine when you’re serving strong and scoring a lot of aces. But — tough love time here — that has not been the case with Tennessee at the service line in recent times! So another under-appreciated player I like to see on the court is the serving specialist. These are the players that come in and just put up a solid run of serves allowing your offense to do their thing. Nothing fancy, nothing conventionally impressive. Just in-serve after in-serve with rare misses. It warms my heart!

Pellizzon has been both — a relentlessly reliable server and an impressively dependable back-row player. Unfortunately these are not the players that stand out when you look over a stats sheet. But, man, you know it when they aren’t on the court. We fans appreciate the important contribution players like Giana Pellizzon have made to the team, especially during UT’s incredible tournament run this year.

  • UT Head Coach Eve Rackham Watt: “Giana has been trained at a very high level through her high school and club programs. Defensively she has great quickness and anticipation. I am excited she has chosen to join our Tennessee Volleyball family and look forward to what she will bring not only next season but in her career as a Lady Vol.”
  • Giana Pellizzon on why she chose Tennessee: “Being a Lady Vol and being surrounded by trail blazers is why Tennessee is so special to me. There are so many resources and opportunities presented for student-athletes here, and we really are able to take advantage of our platform that we have through sport and use that to do good in the world. We’re all one big family, and I will do anything for my team. I love the fanbase, because this is by far the most passionate fanbase across the country. They create a fun atmosphere across all sports.”