“The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”
Last week’s column was about Kameron Simmonds, a sophomore soccer player for Tennessee, and can be read HERE. Following publication, Simmonds scored her fifth goal of 2023 in the next game and surpassed her 2022 total of four goals as a freshman. The Lady Vols are now 3-1-1 and will host Radford at Regal Soccer Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m.
This week’s column is about Keondreya Granberry, a sophomore on the volleyball team. The 6-3 middle blocker from Winter Garden, Florida, has played a key role in the Lady Vols starting the season at 5-1 and taking No. 1 Wisconsin to five sets on the road before falling last Sunday.
Granberry, whose nickname is “Kiki,” tallied four blocks this season against Boston College to surpass her career high of two in a match as a freshman against Norfolk State. Last season, she twice had five total blocks against Kentucky – solo and block assists combined – and this season Granberry has surpassed that three times with a new career high of nine total blocks against Boston College after she assisted on five.
Granberry was outstanding in her first season on Rocky Top and earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors. She is even better as a sophomore.
“I’m proud of all of our players, but I think especially proud of Kiki because it’s not always easy to have such a great freshman year and be able to turn around and do it again,” Tennessee coach Eve Rackham Watt told Knox TN Today. “Kiki did that through legitimate hard work to be able to elevate her game, and that is a mature thing to do.
“Sometimes sophomores have a good freshman year, and they aren’t able to turn around and do it again. As good as she was a freshman, she worked harder to be even better this year.”
That freshman-to-sophomore quote is attributed to the late Al McGuire, a legendary basketball coach at Marquette who won a national title in 1977 and later became a broadcaster paired with Billy Packer before the proliferation of cable when CBS college basketball broadcasts reigned. McGuire died in 2001 at the age of 72. Packer died in 2023 at the age of 83.
McGuire had been described by The New York Times as “the James Joyce of the airwaves,” and his words became known as “McGuireisms.” He is responsible for phrases like white knuckler, aircraft carrier, cupcakes and curtains entering the sports lexicon in reference to a close game, big center, easy opponent and game over.
During one broadcast, Packer pointed out that North Carolina center Geoff Crompton, who weighed more than 300 pounds, had lost 15 pounds. McGuire said: “That’s like the Queen Mary losing a deck chair.”
As far as sophomores, McGuire meant that a college player with one year of experience enters the second year with more confidence and understanding of the game. A freshman can be overwhelmed by nearly everything – strength and conditioning demands, long practices, extensive travel, time crunch, et al. A sophomore has a frame of reference instead of everything being new.
Upperclassmen, as always, are the gold standard of a team because of the abundance of experience. Morgahn Fingall, a redshirt senior, leads Lady Vols volleyball with 75 kills, followed by graduate Jenaisya Moore with 65 and junior Erykah Lovett with 48.
But the youngsters are holding their own as redshirt freshman setter Caroline Kerr has an eye-popping 219 assists so far – she had 55 against Wisconsin – and has provided a productive combo with Granberry. Against Boston College, Granberry notched double-digit kills at 11 for just the second time in her career.
“I thought Keondreya Granberry’s confidence grew throughout the match, which was really cool to see,” Rackham Watt said after that Boston College match. “Offensively, she was working really hard to be available in transition, and when middles work that hard, it’s on the setter to find them as much as possible, and I think Caroline Kerr did that. Kiki made herself available.”
Tennessee swept its classic at home in August to open the season against Texas State – which beat No. 13 Houston last weekend – Marist and UT Martin and then flew to the West Coast to face San Diego, a Final Four team in 2022, and Boston College in the San Diego Invitational.
The Lady Vols won both to start the season at 5-0 and then traveled to Madison to face perennial powerhouse Wisconsin and its diehard fans who pack the Field House. Before the match, the Badgers raised their 2022 Big Ten Championship banner to the rafters.
The Badgers took the first two sets in front of a crowd of 7,229, but Tennessee didn’t fold and instead took the next two sets to force a decisive fifth set before falling 3-2 (16-25, 23-25, 25-18, 25-20, 13-15) last Sunday.
“You’re certainly happy with the win against a really good team,” said Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, whose team won a national title in 2021 and has reached at least the Sweet 16 for 10 consecutive years.
On Monday, Kerr earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors after tallying 125 assists, 23 digs, 12 kills, four blocks and three aces in 12 sets over three matches.
The Lady Vols weren’t ranked to start the season. After its opening weekend at home, Tennessee entered the top 25 at No. 24. After the West Coast success and white knuckler, to quote McGuire, against Wisconsin, the Lady Vols moved up to No. 18.
Tennessee tweeted: We battled until the end but came up just short. Proud of this team for competing the way they did in a hostile environment against the No. 1 team in the nation.
The Lady Vols didn’t travel to Wisconsin to leave with a moral victory of pushing the Badgers to the brink. But the team did depart with a realization of how good it could be.
“We discussed moral victories – exactly that and there definitely are none,” Rackham Watt said. “A loss is a loss, and it counts the same no matter how it happens. The goal of this team is to be playing our best volleyball in December and to be one of the best teams in the country.
“In order for us to do that we need to learn about ourselves early on. So, the fact that we were toe to toe with a really good team in their gym and a tough environment tells me a lot about what this team can do.”
Tennessee’s tour of the Midwest continues with matches at Loyola Chicago on Friday, Sept. 8, and at Marquette in Milwaukee on Sunday, Sept. 10. For local fans who want to see this team, the Lady Vols will host Chicago State on Thursday, Sept. 14, and Evansville on Friday, Sept. 15, at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.
FALL BALL: Softball will play eight exhibition games starting Oct. 1 with six at home and two on the road. Fall ball is a chance to get an early look at the 2024 team, and admission is free at Lee Stadium. The full schedule and details are HERE.
While last season’s success – sweep of the SEC regular season and tourney titles and the Final Four of the Women’s College World Series – will be hard to duplicate, the 2024 team will be loaded, especially with Kiki Milloy, McKenna Gibson, Karlyn Pickens, Zaida Puni, Jamison Brockenbrough, Mackenzie Donihoo, Giulia Koutsoyanopulos, Katie Taylor and Payton Gottshall back on the field, two talented transfers in Sophia Nugent and Laura Mealer and a highly touted freshman class that includes Bella Faw and Gabby Leach.
The Lady Vol Boost HER Club already has some NIL softball shirzees available HERE. Orders placed before Sept. 17 will be shipped in time for fall ball.
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.