On Sept. 20 and 21, Lady Vols volleyball hosted the Tennessee Classic in Thompson Boling Arena.
For Tennessee, it meant a chance to improve upon a tough 3-4 start, including an 0-3 sweep at the hands of No. 5 Baylor in Waco.
For the visiting North Dakota State, Georgia Southern and East Tennessee State teams, the tournament served as an opportunity to punch up and show out against a perennial conference power.
Instead, the Lady Vols showed why they are a continuing power.
In their first outing against Tennessee, the ETSU Buccaneers came out of the gate swinging. The Bucs put up 23 points with 12 kills on the Lady Vols in that first set; were it not for the stalwart defensive performance of Tennessee libero Giana Pellizzon, her team might have not gotten the sweep.
Pellizzon had eight digs in that first set, a career-high, saving what would have been easy kills for the Bucs and doing the dirty work to keep the ball in play.
Offensively, senior outside hitter and preseason All-SEC Tessa Grubbs garnered seven kills in just the first set.
This became a trend.
In the second and third sets against the Bucs, the Lady Vols allowed just 12 and 13 points, respectively, with the Volunteer defense only allowing 14 kills across the final two sets.
ETSU’s hitting percentage was .137 for the match, compared to Tennessee’s .376. Freshman Morgahn Fingall recorded 8 kills and a season-high of 6 blocks, while sophomore Ava Bell hit 7 kills and got 4 blocks. Grubbs led the match in kills, finishing with 17. This is Grubbs’ fourth consecutive match with over 15.
The energy from Friday’s big win would carry over into Saturday when the Lady Vols took on Georgia Southern.
The Lady Vols went up 6-1 in the first set on four consecutive assists from setter Sedona Hansen. After earning the momentum in the opening minutes, the Vols wouldn’t trail again until early in the third set.
In this match, however, Tennessee’s young talent began to shine through. Along with Grubbs, sophomore outside hitter Danielle Mahaffey led the match in kills with 12 — a career-high for her. She also accrued 8 digs in the match.
Tennessee hit .400 for the match, with four players hitting .500 or above. The Eagles only hit .133 on a stand-out Volunteer defense, which was not enough to prevent a sweep.
On Saturday night, the Lady Vols’ last matchup was the Lady Bison team from North Dakota State.
Going into the night, Tennessee had been hitting effectively at high percentages; Grubbs was leading the Classic in kills, and young players Fingall and Bell were getting their own chances to produce.
Defensively, both Lady Vols liberos and hitters were earning double-digit digs throughout the invitational. NDSU, on the other hand, had only taken one set the whole weekend. They had been outplayed both offensively and defensively.
The Lady Vols never trailed.
Grubbs returned to form offensively, scoring 16 kills in the match. Fingall once again demonstrated her young talent, coming in second with 8 kills.
Perhaps the most outstanding performance came from Hansen, the senior setter who had 33 assists in the match. The Lady Vols hit .427 against the Lady Bison, while NDSU struggled to keep the ball in bounds. The visitors racked up 22 errors on the night — they had a positive hitting percentage in just one set. On the whole, they hit .064 in the match.
“[O]ur offensive production was really balanced… we got a lot of production for a lot of people. We were able to hold our opponents to a lower hitting percentage, which has been a concentrated effort for us,” Tennessee head coach Eve Rackham said.
Tennessee’s performance was expected, as the Lady Vols have won 14 consecutive matches in the Tennessee Classic. The point of this invitational is to develop consistency and prepare the team for the gauntlet of conference play to come later this fall.
“As soon as it ends, it’s in the past and we’re on to the next one. We have the expectation to just come in here and to play our best against every single team,” Lady Vol and tournament MVP Hansen said.
With conference play starting this Friday and road games coming up against Georgia, Auburn and the defending conference champion Florida Gators, the Lady Vols must ensure that expectation remains the same.
Next up, Tennessee will face Ole Miss on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pavillion in Oxford. The game can be watched on SEC Network+.
Edited by Christian Knox and Ainsley Kelso
Featured photo from TNJN archives