"I've had the great fortune of having an office down in Thompson-Boling Arena," said Kelly, in her 15th season with the program, "and (Summitt) might not know this, but every day I've made sure I was in before her and I would never, ever leave until after she had left."
The hard work has paid off for Kelly since taking over the program in 2000.
For the ninth time in Kelly's 12 seasons as coach, the Lady Vols (15-6) are in the NCAA tournament, beginning with today's first-round match against Ohio State (10-8-2) at Regal Soccer Stadium. Game time is 2 p.m.
The winner will face either Illinois State (13-5) or Milwaukee (18-2) in the second round on Nov. 18. No. 25 Tennessee, playing as a No. 4 seed, is 9-0-1 when hosting NCAA tournament games.
"I think our body of work displayed the ability that this team has," Kelly said. "This senior class came in winning an SEC tournament championship (in 2008) and the last two seasons were sub-par for their expectations and for the expectations here at Tennessee."
The last two "sub-par" seasons have both ended with first-round losses in the SEC tournament and without invitations to the NCAA tournament, ending an eight-year run of making the tournament that stretched 2001-08.
Lady Vols soccer: Resilient and determined
The Lady Vols lost a 1-0, overtime match against LSU in the SEC tournament last season, ending a 10-9-1 season. The year before that, 2009, was a double-overtime loss in the SEC tournament, this time against Florida, and a sub-.500 season at 8-9-3.
Tennessee won the SEC tournament in 2008 but fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a 2-0 loss to Charlotte.
"I think the past couple of years we were humbled," Kelly said. "And we certainly understand a little bit more thoroughly today how excited we are to continue to have another game.
"And that's our focus. This team has been working hard to make sure these seniors get to put on a show for all of our fans at home, you know, one more day."
While Kelly is quick to admit the past two seasons were below standards, she said she hasn't felt the heat to keep pace with the success Summitt, a person Kelly describes as her "best friend and coaching mentor", or the other women's athletic programs at Tennessee.
"We didn't keep the standards of Tennessee," Kelly said. "And certainly, when you don't accomplish those goals, then you just know inside those things have to happen.
"But in terms of added pressure, no. That's just the standard that is Tennessee. I understood that 15 years ago and completely understand that today."
Tennessee fell to Auburn in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. Kelly said the loss was a reminder of how quickly a season can end this time of year.
"You never want to finish the season with a loss," Kelly said. "And there's only one team in the country that has the ability to do that.
"It's been a fantastic season, but we certainly have a lot of soccer left in us."
Sellout Saturday: Kelly this week wrote a letter to Lady Vols fans to "come out in full force" to sell out Regal Soccer Stadium. "Your support has been phenomenal this season," Kelly said in the letter. "The last NCAA event hosted on our campus we had 1,062 fans. I would like to personally challenge the City of Knoxville and the Soccer community to blow that number out of the water!!"
Grant Ramey is a freelance contributor.