Maybe the silver lining to a rare losing season for Tennessee volleyball was the promise of opportunity to talented recruits.
It appeared to work. The Lady Vols are ready to start the 2008 season and a touted recruiting class has made its impact felt.
"The freshman came in the first day of practice and were playing like they've been here for three years,'' said senior Mindy Flynn.
"We had a scrimmage the third day of preseason and it was competitive. I can't wait to see where it goes.''
An 11-18 season in 2007 halted a three-year run of NCAA tournament bids for the Lady Vols, who reached the Final Four in 2005.
A new season opens today in the Kickoff Tournament in Milwaukee. UT plays Chattanooga tonight, followed by Houston and Marquette on Saturday.
Coach Rob Patrick looks forward to seeing how a recruiting class that ranked 13th nationally fits in when the lights come on.
He knows this much: The class addresses two needs, depth and athleticism.
Football has 40 times to measure athleticism. Volleyball has touch, as in how high can you touch.
"If you're touching 10 feet, that's elite,'' Patrick said. "Of our 16 players, we have 10 hitters. Of those 10, every one of them touches 10 feet or higher.
"We've normally had two or three over 10 feet. Now our whole team is over 10 feet at the net.''
Three of the freshmen are in the 10-foot club.
Alyssa Hilby signed with Washington State but got her release to become a nice late addition to UT's class.
DeeDee Harrison of Nashville is the first instate scholarship signee in Patrick's 12 years.
Kayla Jeter of Solon, Ohio, shares an athletic background with Harrison. They are the daughters of former NFL defensive linemen (Dennis Harrison and Gary Jeter).
Returning from last year are the three leading kill artists: Nikki Fowler, Leah Hinkey and Farren Powe.
Fowler recorded 370 kills and was the SEC Freshman of the Year. She's a preseason All-SEC pick this year.
"She's got all the shots,'' Patrick said. "We're trying to, not build the whole offense around her, but get the ball in her hands in a lot of different areas.''
Chloe Goldman returns at libero (a defensive specialist) after setting a school record with 638 digs.
Flynn and Powe are the two players Patrick calls his X-factors. They were injured and limited last year. Both are healthy now.
"Mindy is like our Dane Bradshaw,'' Patrick said. "She's that quiet player you don't notice until you look at the box score.''
The position UT hopes it has strengthened the most is setter. Last year's starter, Jena Berg, transferred to Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"It's like quarterback or point guard,'' Patrick said. "We had an injury at that position and it affected us all year.''
The most highly ranked of UT's freshmen is setter Kelsey Mahoney from Texas.
"All she does is win,'' said Patrick, "whether it's serving or blocking or setting the right people, she'll find a way.''
Then there's Michaela Hanakova, a setter from the Czech Republic who played at a junior college in Utah.
"Very experienced and can set anywhere,'' said Patrick. "She's the best defensive setter I've ever had at Tennessee.''
She'll be setting in Thompson-Boling Arena as the program leaves outdated Stokely Athletic Center.
UT plans to eventually build a facility for volleyball and indoor track, but for now the team is excited about the move to the arena.
"The Jumbotron, air-conditioning, comfortable seats, for the fans it's a great move,'' Patrick said. "The only negative is that it is a big arena, but that's a small thing compared to all the positives we have coming out of it.''
"It's not home,'' said Flynn, "but it will be. It'll just take time.''