Volleyball team leaves Tuesday for Final Four

Tennessee Lady Vol fans can help send off the volleyball team Tuesday to Texas as it prepares to leave for the program's first Final Four. Fans wishing to salute the team should gather at the soccer field, located off Neyland Drive, at 3 p.m., 30 minutes prior to the 3:30 p.m. departure time for San Antonio.

Tennessee plays Thursday against Washington at 7 p.m. Eastern time (ESPNU live; rebroadcast at 11 p.m. on ESPN2) in a national semifinal in the Alamodome. The Lady Vols earned their first trip to the volleyball Final Four with a win Saturday over Missouri. Nebraska and Santa Clara play in the other semifinal. The winners will meet Saturday for the national title at 6 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2).

To get to Texas, the Lady Vols had to beat Penn State on its home floor in the Sweet 16 and then get past the Tigers. Against Missouri, Tennessee was led by senior Kristen Andre with 19 kills; junior Kelsey Fautsch added 16. Senior Julie Knytych tallied 49 assists, and senior Amy Morris led the team with 21 digs. Junior Sarah Blum led all players with nine blocks.

"This was just a total team win," Tennessee head coach Rob Patrick said. "Unfortunately for the people that come watch us play they don't get to watch us practice. When you look at a box score you see Julie's stats and Kelsey's stats, but you don't see what the other players do for us. We're playing this well because we're practicing well. That's what helped us win this match. Missouri is a great team. The one thing I told our players was that we needed to be patient and just wait for our openings, and I think that's what happened."

Regardless of what happens next in San Antonio, the 2005 volleyball squad will go down in Tennessee history for not only getting to the Final Four but for getting there so quickly.

"It's an amazing feeling," Blum said. "We've worked so hard. We all went to summer school and have been at Tennessee since June, lifting weights, getting up at 6 a.m. and running. Finally all that's paying off. To be part of the Final Four now, it's every volleyball player's dream."

Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt knows a lot about Final Fours – she's been to 16 in her 32-year career – and she also knows how hard it is to win a national title. She began coaching at Tennessee in 1974; her first championship came in 1987.

"I'm thrilled," Summitt said after basketball practice Monday when asked about the volleyball team's feat. "Would you have ever thought volleyball at Tennessee would be in the Final Four (already)? What Rob and his staff have done and what the players did this year – their chemistry, their toughness – they're mentally strong. I had the opportunity to watch them more this year than I have in the past. I just think they have a grit about them, a toughness. Kind of reminds me of the '87 (basketball) team. They went up there on a mission. I'm really proud for them."

The Lady Vols basketball team also plays Thursday evening against Louisiana Tech in Knoxville so Summitt will be engaged that evening. But if the volleyball team makes it to the title game Saturday, Summitt said she hopes to be able to make it to San Antonio. Last spring, she told the Lady Vol softball players that if they made it to the College World Series, she would attend. They did, and so did Summitt, who was on vacation but kept her promise.

The success of the programs builds a synergy that all the coaches can capitalize on.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "Anytime – whether it's men's or women's it doesn't matter – we are constantly sending out information to our recruits about the total program. Obviously we have a lot to tell them. I think it indicates the level of commitment by the athletics departments."

Fans wanting to attend the NCAA Volleyball Championships in San Antonio may call the Alamodome at 210-207-3663 for ticket information.


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