The volleyball team is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 as a stellar 2023 season continues under coach Eve Rackham Watt and crew.
For Watt, associate head coach Tyler Adams and her assistant coach and husband, Gavin Watt, the win that sent the Lady Vols to California for the next match was sweet indeed. Now in her sixth season at Tennessee – and first as a head coach after starting her career in 2004 – she assembled a team willing to believe it could put the Lady Vols back on the map, even if it took a little time, and became a first-time mother to son Jude Watt in 2019.
“We are really excited to be moving on,” Watt said. “I am really proud of this group for what they did. I am very excited for this team. This is what they wanted and what they believed in all season.”
No. 3 seed Tennessee, 26-4, swept the early rounds in three sets against unseeded High Point and No. 6 seed Western Kentucky to advance to Palo Alto, California, where No. 1 seed Stanford will host a regional. Stanford plays No. 5 seed Arizona State on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern while Tennessee plays No. 2 seed Texas at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. The winners will meet Saturday, Dec. 9, for a berth in the Final Four in Tampa.
The sweep against Western Kentucky didn’t come easy, as Tennessee had to come from behind to close out the match with a third set score of 26-24. The matchup featured 11 lead changes and 26 ties.
“We have confidence because we have done this all year long,” Rackham Watt said. “The way that we scheduled a tough non-conference slate was to help prepare us for situations like this.”
Setter Caroline Kerr, who finished with 37 assists, teamed up with Jenaisya Moore, who scored five of the final six points on kills with four assists from Kerr and one from Yelianiz Torres. The final point came on a service ace by Ashllyn King.
Moore, who finished with 19 kills – 10 came in the final set – transferred to Tennessee last spring from Ohio State. Morgahn Fingall, who played five seasons at Tennessee, notched 11 kills, six digs and six blocks. Fingall was one of the players who said yes to Watt for the long haul and spent two seasons on Rocky Top before playing in her first NCAA tourney.
“It was going in slow motion for me at the end,” Fingall said. “Just seeing that final ace and then everyone come running towards me was incredible. I have been waiting for this moment for so long, and we have fallen short in the past. But finally pushing through to the Sweet 16 is awesome.”
The sweep was the 19th of the season and the second-most in Tennessee history. The record is 20 set in 1983 when programs played a lot more matches with 41 that season.
Kerr, Torrez, Moore and Fingall all earned AVCA All-Region Team honors on Tuesday, the most for Tennessee since 2011. Fingall also earned Southeast Region Player of the Year.
Tennessee won’t be favored on the West Coast, but Rackham Watt and her staff have shown they can transform a program, and the trio took a moment after the second round win in Knoxville to take it in.
“We came in together, the three of us, with a vision to get this program back to being nationally relevant,” Rackham Watt said. “It was a big moment for us to be able to share together with the rest of our staff. We’ve worked so hard to continue to build this program.”
BASKETBALL: Tennessee will try to get back on track today, Dec. 6, with a game against Middle Tennessee State University that will be played in Huntsville, Alabama, at Propst Arena at Von Braun Center. The game tips at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and can be watched at ESPN+.
It’s an unusual setup and both teams agreed to the format to promote the site of the 2023-24 Conference USA Women’s and Men’s Basketball tournaments. MTSU plays in Conference USA, and the arena is about 85 miles from campus. It will be a 211-mile trip for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee has lost back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Ohio State, both of which are ranked. After the losses, the Lady Vols fell four spots out of the top 25.
The news isn’t all dire, though. Rickea Jackson hasn’t played in nearly a month, but assistant coach Samantha Williams posted a clip of Jackson shooting on Monday, and Tennessee fans understandably got excited. That doesn’t mean Jackson plays this week, but it does indicate she’s getting closer to a return.
Tamari Key played last Sunday for 16 minutes, the most time she has spent on the court for a game in nearly a year since blood clots in her lungs ended her season and forced her to shut down all physical activity for months.
“Really proud of her for hanging in there and really working hard to get to this point,” coach Kellie Harper said. “We’ll continue to find ways to progress her.”
The presence of Jackson and Key presents difference makers for Tennessee. It would be the best holiday present of all for Lady Vol fans if the duo can help the team fire on all cylinders going into 2024.
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael 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.