Lady Vols soccer team, thy name is resilience

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The Tennessee soccer team will play in the second round of the NCAA tourney, a slot very few people would have predicted after a season in which multiple players, including key starters, had their seasons ended by injury.

The Lady Vols had expected to compete to repeat for the East Division title in the SEC but lost two players before the season even started. That was followed by six more players sidelined, including Jaida Thomas to a knee injury. Thomas was on the cusp of becoming the top scorer in Tennessee soccer history when her season ended. A ninth player also was injured during the season but, if Tennessee can keep winning, may make it back. If not, that would be nine players lost to injury in three months.

Tennessee needed to win on the last day of the season against Vanderbilt to qualify for the SEC tourney and did so. While the Lady Vols made a quick exit, a berth in the NCAA tourney seemed certain because of the SEC postseason slot, a strong RPI due to the strength of the SEC and the quality of non-conference opponents.

In a stroke of soccer cosmic karma, Tennessee got sent to Xavier, the team that eliminated the Lady Vols in the first round in double overtime a year ago. Tennessee should have hosted in 2022 but instead got shipped to the state of Ohio.

Fast forward a year and a decidedly underdog Tennessee with a gutted team again goes to Xavier and this time wins in double overtime on a goal by graduate transfer Sizzy Lawton that was assisted by sophomore Kameron Simmonds.

Redshirt sophomore goalie Ally Zazzara tied a Tennessee single-game record with 15 saves to match Sarah Shivley against No. 8 Florida on Nov. 7, 1996. No. 4 seed Xavier had 41 shots on goal. Tennessee had just 11 and got one to find the net in a 1-0 win.

“It was a gritty result against a really talented Xavier team,” Tennessee coach Joe Kirt said. “Their resilience and grit showed through, and I’m excited to take the field again with this group against Nebraska.”

When asked about the team’s goal against Nebraska, Kirt needed just three words said with a smile: “Shoot more often.”

Tennessee will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, for a matchup with the No. 5 seed Cornhuskers on Friday, Nov. 17. Match time is set for 8 p.m. Eastern with a livestream on ESPN+.

“It’s been a long year for our team in a lot of ways,” Kirt said. “For them to achieve that against Vanderbilt and then against Xavier, just really proud of their commitment. They continue to support one another and fight.

“They’ve worked incredibly hard to stay in it mentally, physically, emotionally. They supported one another and they leaned on one another.”


Monday’s game featured two teams from the state of Tennessee with former Lady Vols who played for the late Pat Summitt as opposing head coaches. The Lady Vols prevailed, 84-74, in overtime against Memphis in a game that featured pre- and post-game hugs between Tennessee’s Kellie Harper and Memphis’ Alex Simmons.

Between the two of them, known in their playing days as Kellie Jolly and Alex Fuller, they have five national titles hanging in the rafters above the court they stood on.

Alex Simmons hugs Kellie Harper well before tip time. (UT Athletics)

Tennessee played without its superstar Rickea Jackson, who had a boot on her lower leg and is officially listed as day-to-day. Simmons, who turned around the program at Gardner-Webb, is in her first season at Memphis, and the home-and-home series was set up with Tennessee soon after Simmons arrived.

“I’m glad we came out of it with a win,” Harper said. “I told our team to remember we don’t take any of them for granted, good, bad or ugly. Take it, you don’t give it back and you try and learn from it and move forward. Memphis did a great job; they play so hard, and we knew that coming in.”

Simmons was a gritty player and no-nonsense leader for Tennessee who was nicknamed “Sunshine” by teammate Alexis Hornbuckle because she was anything but. She has a deadpan sense of humor and can do a spot-on imitation of Summitt. When Simmons was announced Monday during pre-game introductions, the fans cheered, and a smile appeared to crease her face.

“No,” Simmons said with a laugh. “Just simply put, no. I was more worried about the tip, because I knew they run a backscreen off the tip, but I didn’t know if they were going to run it because Rickea wasn’t playing. Honestly, if you want me to be blunt.”

The presser ended, but as Simmons stood up, she looked at the media, smiled said: “I love all you, though.”

The day before the game, Simmons and Harper volunteered as coaches at a camp at Fulton High School for girls ages 8-14 that was organized by Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley and Nicky Anosike, who serves as athletics director for the nonprofit.

Kellie Harper, center, and Alex Simmons, right, direct traffic at the Girls Inc. game. (Maria Cornelius photo)

The camp sold out with 150 participants, and two of Simmons’ Tennessee teammates, Hornbuckle and Kelley Cain, also came in support. Harper brought her full staff, and Simmons brought one of her assistant coaches, KeKe McKinney, a Knoxville native and standout basketball player at Fulton.

Girls Inc. also conducts outreach to underserved communities, and camp fee was set at just $10. Anosike, who grew up impoverished with seven siblings in New York, said she needed something like this camp when she was young and intentionally set the fee low. Still, 50 girls signed up that needed sponsored spots, and the call went out on social media. Fans raised the funds in less than two hours.

“We were able to get Lady Vol fans to back those girls and support them,” Anosike said.

Closeup of the front of the T-shirt honoring the lives of Nikki McCray-Penson and Tasha Butts.

The event also honored former Lady Vol players Nikki McCray-Penson and Tasha Butts who both died of breast cancer in 2023 with special T-shirts provided by the Lady Vol Boost HER Club. The shirts are still available to buy HERE, and proceeds will be donated to Girls Inc. and Butts’ foundation.

“Nikki and Tasha both were my realistic examples when I was a player of players who also became coaches,” Simmons said. “In my generation, those are probably the main two that I could follow and try to emulate their steps. It was important for Nicky to honor them. It’s something that we needed to do because those are our Lady Vol sisters.”

The common thread with Harper, Simmons Hornbuckle, Cain and Anosike is they all played for Summitt.

“This is all Pat here,” Anosike said. “Pat was a legendary coach, but more than anything, she loved people and she gave back to people. Everyone knows her not because she won a lot of games, but because of how she made people feel when they were around her.

“That’s what we do. We want these girls to feel important. We want them to know that they are loved and that we care.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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