Head coach J.J. Clark's squad began to show signs that it just might be worthy of postseason action on Oct. 27, when the then-unranked orange-clads toppled three higher ranked teams to finish second (behind No. 10 Arkansas) at the SEC meet in Lexington, Ky.
Bolstered by that performance, Tennessee will enter the NCAA South meet ranked a season-best 25th in this week's USTFCCCA National Poll and rated second in the region behind third-ranked Florida State. No. 29 Georgia and Florida (receiving votes nationally) are right on UT's heels in the South poll after the Big Orange finished ahead of them at the league meet.
"We did run our best at SECs, and we'll need a little more this weekend to make the NCAA Championship meet," Clark said. "There are going to be more teams and other conferences incorporated into this meet, so we'll need a better performance.
"They only take two teams (with NCAA automatic bids), and we'll have to be one of those two in order to make the NCAA meet. There is an at-large process, but I am not really looking to go that route."
In the previous five NCAA South Regional meets Clark has piloted the Lady Vols, Tennessee won four of them.
After a four-year spree of victories and automatic bids to the NCAA Championships from 2002 to 2005, the Big Orange had to settle for an at-large invitation a year ago when they finished third on their home course at Lambert Acres Golf Club behind Georgia and Florida and just ahead of Florida State.
The 2007 meet looks to again feature those four teams (out of around 25 in the region) battling it out for NCAA berths, with Florida State wearing the role of favorite with its top-five national ranking. The Seminoles return 2006 regional individual champion Susan Kuijken, who covered the 6,000-meter distance at hilly Lambert Acres last season in a speedy 20 minutes, 54.1 seconds.
Spear-heading Tennessee's efforts to earn a trip to Terre Haute are three juniors, including Sarah Bowman, Heidi Magill-Dahl and Katie Van Horn. Those Lady Vols garnered All-SEC acclaim two weekends ago by placing fourth, seventh and ninth, respectively, at the league championship meet. For Magill-Dahl, it was an especially impressive feat, as it came in her Lady Vol debut and in her first cross country race since 2005.
In this meet a year ago, Bowman was UT's fourth finisher, eliciting All-South Region acclaim with her 23rd-place finish. For the initial time in her career, Van Horn was the Big Orange's pacesetter, crossing the line eighth out of 155 runners to also make the 2006 All-South squad. At this time last season, Magill-Dahl was taking a redshirt year at BYU, but she had produced All-Mountain Region honors for the Cougars in both the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
Sophomore Jackie Areson was Tennessee's second scorer and placed 10th overall at the 2006 NCAA South Regional, making her the third returning all-region runner for the Orange and White this season. She had been one of UT's top three consistently this season until sliding to fifth on the team and placing 38th overall in Lexington.
Rounding out the expected travel squad are freshman Brittany Sheffey, junior Rolanda Bell and sophomore Phoebe Wright. Sheffey, who had a 6K PR of 21:46.03, and Bell ran in the fourth and sixth positions for Tennessee at the SEC meet two weekends ago, finishing 28th and 54th, respectively. Wright wound up 60th. At least two of these three must step forward in a major way for Tennessee to contend for an NCAA spot.
"I am excited to get there (to Gainesville) and see what happens," Clark said. "Every year, we've been in the mix, and usually it's been Florida State and Georgia, so hopefully we can pull together and come out on top. We are as good, I believe, as anyone. We just have to put it together."
LADY VOL VOLLEYBALL: The volleyball team (9-16, 4-13) could never get on track, as it dropped a three-game decision to the No. 8-ranked Florida (23-1, 16-1 SEC), 30-20, 30-18, 30-27, Friday night at Stokely Athletics Center.
Freshman Nikki Fowler was the lone Lady Vol to reach double-digits in kills during the contest, pounding out 10, while collecting eight digs as well.
"I thought we played hard today, but we made the match more difficult for ourselves because we were undisciplined defensively," UT head coach Rob Patrick said. "I was proud of the way our hitters were able to get their feet to the ball and take some big swings, but our offense is still only running at about half of its efficiency."
"Nikki did a great job of taking some big, aggressive swings from the back row tonight," Patrick said. "That was the most aggressive that I've seen her play. As great as she has been all year, this match shows that she has only beginning to reach her full potential."
Sophomore Leah Hinkey also put forth a solid offensive performance, hitting at a team-high .333 clip with nine kills and just two errors in 21 attacks. She recorded a squad-best three blocks as well. With a .316 hitting percentage (7-1-19) senior Yuliya Stoyanova had her most efficient night in nearly a month.
Sophomore Jena Berg, meanwhile, tallied her 14th double-double of the season with 29 assists and 12 digs.
The Gators took hold of the initial game early on and never let loose, claiming the game 30-20. After a smash by Hinkey knotted the score at 6-6, Florida took off on a six-point spree to take a lead it would never relinquish. The Orange and White kept fighting though, eventually cutting the UF advantage to three at 16-13 on another kill by Hinkey.
The Gators answered right back, however, with three consecutive scores. Shortly thereafter, with the scoreboard reading 22-17 in favor of Florida, the Gators effectively ended the frame with a five-point run that put them up by double-digits.
Florida kept rolling in the second set, never trailing en route to a 30-18 victory and two games to one advantage. Before the Lady Vols even knew what hit them, they were facing a six-point deficit after the Gators jumped ahead 8-2 in almost no time at all. The Florida advantage continued to steadily increase as it kept Tennessee from stringing together more than two scores at any one point for the entire game. The Big Orange fought off two attempts at game point with Stoyanova and Fowler smashing out kills, but a Lauren Bledsoe kill ended all hopes of a comeback and sent UT into the locker room down by two sets.
The two squads engaged in a hard-fought battle in game three, but Florida emerged triumphant once again, claiming the set 30-27 and the match three games to none. Neither team was able to take much of a lead early on as they traded the first 12 points and reached a 6-6 deadlock. Over the next nine plays, Florida earned points on six to go up 12-9. The Lady Vols refused to give up, however, knotting the score up once again with a trio of scores, including a strong block by Stoyanova and sophomore Farren Powe and yet another kill by Hinkey.
From that point on, the Gators slowly but surely pulled away until a scores on three consecutive plays put them up by six at 26-20. Once again, UT kept grinding away until back-to-back putaways by Fowler and Powe cut the Florida advantage to three at 28-25 and forced Florida Coach Mary Wise to burn her first timeout of the day.
Straight out of the break, Gator setter Angie McGinnis fooled the Orange and White defense by tipping one over the net for a kill to give her team four chances at match point. Florida's first two attempts were denied as McGinnis served one into the net and Fowler recorded her 10th kill of the night. That would be the end of the comeback, however, as a UT attack error ended the contest.
The Orange and White will look to rebound Sunday afternoon when South Carolina makes the trip to Knoxville. First serve for the match against the Gamecocks is set for 1:30 p.m.
The Gamecocks are coming off a hard-fought, five-game victory over Arkansas last weekend that moved their record to 12-13 overall and 5-11 in the SEC. With a four-game triumph over UT earlier this year, South Carolina moved within a game of the Big Orange in the all-time series, which stands at 25-24 in favor of Tennessee.
The Gamecocks feature a three-pronged offense led by sophomore Ivana Kujundzic who ranks 10th in the conference with a team-high 308 kills this season. Senior Belita Salters can also be found among the league leaders with a .327 hitting percentage, which puts her in eighth among all SEC players. Freshman Megan Laughlin, meanwhile, has put together a solid rookie campaign with 251 kills and a .294 hitting percentage.
Salters also provides a solid presence at the net defensively, as she averages 1.20 blocks per game to place her 10th in the league. The Gamecocks do not rely on any one player for digs, getting significant contributions from six different players. While sophomore Sarah Cline tops the team with 294 digs, five others have collected over 100 of their own.
The Lady Vols suffered a heart-breaking, four-game loss at South Carolina on Oct. 5, falling 30-23, 27-30, 30-23, 30-22, in Columbia. Despite the defeat, sophomore Farren Powe tallied a career-high .583 hitting percentage with nine kills and just two errors in 12 swings. Freshman Nikki Fowler, however, topped the team with 14 kills, while sophomore Leah Hinkey posted 12.
Defensively, sophomore Chloe Goldman led the squad with 17 digs, while Fowler, Hinkey and Powe all tied for the team high in blocks with four each. With 38 assists and 11 digs, sophomore Jena Berg notched the 10th double-double of her young career.
BERG HONORED: Jena Berg has been named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV Second Team, as announced by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Berg currently holds a cumulative GPA of 3.49 as a member of the sport management program at Tennessee.
After serving as a defensive specialist for most of 2006, Berg has been the Lady Vols' primary setter for the majority of the 2007 campaign. She currently ranks seventh among all Southeastern Conference players and leads UT with an average of 10.10 assists per game. Berg also ranks second on the team with 3.05 digs per game and third with 262 total digs.