The 19th-ranked University of Tennessee volleyball team opened the 2010 season and the Comcast Lady Vol Classic with a bang on Friday night, sweeping past Xavier in three sets, 25-17, 25-15, 25-23, in front of 604 Orange and White faithful at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Big Orange utilized a varied offensive attack and stifling defense to pick up the win. As a team, UT hit at a .299 clip, led by senior Nikki Fowler's 13 kills. The Dallas, Texas, native notched her 17th straight double-double dating back to last season with 11 digs as well. Junior libero Amanda Friday also recorded double-digit scoops with 13 of her own.
It was freshman Kelsey Robinson that stole the show in the season opener, however, with her terrific play on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. The Bartlett, Ill., native pounded out nine kills while hitting .318 (9-2-22) and topping the Tennessee squad with 16 digs. She also collected a pair of assists and a block.
During preseason practice, UT head coach Rob Patrick continually talked about the variety the Lady Vols would have on offense this season. That was clearly on display on Friday night, as six different players recorded five or more kills.
In addition to the efforts from Fowler and Robinson, sophomore Leslie Cikra hit .600 (6-0-10), junior Kayla Jeter blasted out seven kills with just one error (.353) and fifth-year senior Leah Hinkey was errorless on 11 swings with five kills for a .455 hitting percentage. Sophomore DeeDee Harrison also stood out on the stat sheet with seven putaways and a team-high five blocks, including two solo stuffs.
With the win, the Lady Vols improved to 30-8 all-time in season-opening matches, including an 11-3 mark in Patrick's 14 years at the helm in Knoxville.
Despite a slow start in the opening frame, Tennessee finished strong, winning 14 of the final 17 points to claim a 25-17 victory. Robinson got her collegiate career off to a quick start, pounding out three kills and collecting four digs.
It was Harrison that sparked the Lady Vol offense though, hitting .571 in the set with four kills on seven attempts without an error. With UT trailing 14-12, the Nashville, native got the ball rolling in the Orange and White's favor with a smash down the center of the court. Following a Xavier attack error, she repeated the feat to tie the score at 14-all.
Another Xavier offensive miscue gave Tennessee the lead and prompted Musketeers head coach Mike Johnson to burn his first timeout. Robinson would thwart his attempt to change the momentum, however, blasting a kill to the back-left corner of the court on the first play out of the break to keep the ball on UT's side of the net. From there, the Lady Vols would continue to pad their lead until Fowler and Hinkey combined to send back a left-side attack by Shannon Voors to close out the frame.
Tennessee led wire-to-wire in the second set as Xavier was able to tie the score only once at 3-3 before succumbing, 25-15. After notching just one kill in the opening frame, Fowler started to heat up in the second, leading all players with five putaways. Robinson continued her strong play as well with four kills and seven digs, while Friday collected eight scoops of her own.
The big blow came early on with the Lady Vols using a 7-1 run to break things open. With a narrow lead at 5-4, a kill by Fowler and three consecutive attack errors by XU quickly put UT up by five. Although the Musketeers would win the next point, Cikra followed with a pair of lasers down the right-side line, sandwiched around a cross-court putaway by Fowler, to move the score to 12-5 in favor of the Big Orange.
Xavier was never able to recover from the early onslaught and UT slowly increased its advantage until a Fowler blasted a shot that ricocheted high off the block and over the back row defenders' heads for the 25th and final point of the set.
The third frame was a much closer affair with 11 tie scores and four lead changes. The Lady Vols would prevail once again though, fighting back from a late deficit to post a 25-23 triumph and stake claim to their first win of the 2010 campaign.
With freshmen Ellen Mullins and Carly Sahagian making their collegiate debuts in the set, Tennessee turned to senior leadership to close things out. Fowler and Hinkey combined to hit .533 in the frame with a combined nine kills and just one error on 11 total attacks. Fowler provided six of the putaways, while Hinkey contributed three.
It was a back-and-forth affair early on with Xavier jumping out to a 7-3 lead only to see it vanish right before its eyes thanks to a four-point spree by UT that brought the score back to a deadlock. The lead would continue to see-saw between the two squads until a 6-1 run put the Musketeers up 20-18. Facing the possibility of being pushed to a fourth set, the Lady Vols buckled down and got the job done starting two plays later. With her team down 21-19, Fowler blasted out back-to-back kills to knot the score back up. Although Kelsey Dunaway put Xavier back in the lead with a putaway of her own, one of her teammates gave it right back with an attack error.
Hinkey then provided the knockout blow in the form of a sharp line drive of a serve that fell for an ace. Following a Xavier timeout, the Glenwood Springs, Colo., product added another service ace for good measure, putting Tennessee one point away from its first victory. The match-clinching score would come just two plays later as Harrison stuffed a Claire Paszkiewicz attack to cap off the win.
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