So we sat down to visit about her remarkable career, and Kentucky middle Azhani Tealer propped her arms on the table, and, even with a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt, the guns were obvious.
Tealer has biceps that weightlifters dream of.
“I’ve been built like this since I was like 5,” she said with a giggle. “I don’t know. I used to run track meets when I was 6 and 7 and people were like, ‘She’s running out of her age group.’ And my mom was like, ‘No, she’s just really strong.’ I’ve always been like this.”
Strong, explosive. And relatively short, especially for a middle at this level.
Madi Skinner, the 6-foot-2 Kentucky outside hitter, smiled when asked about Tealer.
“I don’t want to say she’s short, because she gets so mad at me when I say that,” Skinner said with a laugh. “But she’s on the shorter side.”
It’s funny because in the real world Tealer is a tall woman.
“I’ve been measured by my doctor at 5-9, but I’ll take 5-10. Really 5-9 and a half,” Tealer said. “I mean, we have ‘bro (Riah Walker) who’s taller than me on our team.”
Perhaps, but no one plays bigger than the junior middle from the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, Texas. Tealer is third on the team in kills, hitting .443, and has almost twice as many blocks as her nearest teammate.
Fifth-ranked Kentucky (18-4 overall, 11-1 SEC) plays host to Texas A&M this Saturday and Sunday. The Wildcats had won nine in a row — all in the SEC — after two incredible five-set matches to end the preseason, a loss at now-No. 1 Louisville and a win over Stanford. They finally lost in the SEC last week at South Carolina, falling in five, but came back with a sweep the next day over South Carolina and then Wednesday swept Georgia.
Kentucky is a cool, calm, and collected bunch after winning the 2021 spring NCAA championship. Setter Madison Lilley, the national player of the year, all-world libero Gabby Curry, and Skinner’s older sister, Avery (now at Baylor), have moved on, but the Wildcats are supremely talented, ranked No. 7 in the NCAA RPI, and poised for another postseason run.
Now, just like last season, on a team with Madi Skinner and Alli Stumler, Tealer stays below the radar but is remarkably efficient, makes big-time plays, and astounds anyone who watches her.
And let’s make it clear:
Tealer was not recruited as a middle.
“I played middle when I was 14 in club, but not since then. I played outside in high school, right side in club, outside.”
So she hadn’t played middle in six years when she made the switch at Kentucky, and, by the way, won a national championship while doing so and was named a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American.
“Crazy, I know,” Tealer said with a laugh. “It’s been a fun transition and interesting.”
And back in the recruiting process?
She just laughed a hearty laugh.
“That was the last thing I thought would have happened here. I played right side my freshman year. Split time with Caitlyn Cooper. And after that we had our individual meetings and Craig was like, ‘How do you feel about playing middle?’ I thought he was joking.”
She laughed again.
“And now we’re here.”
Skinner was not joking, although he never thought about it when he was recruting Tealer.
“No,” Skinner said.
“Just trying to be creative and figure out ways to get your best athletes on the floor. She’s pound for pound maybe our best athlete and has been since she got here. And middle is the best position to utilize her strengths.”
Her strengths include touching a shade higher than 10 feet, 6 inches.
“We could see her getting better all the time,” Skinner said. “She’s so fast laterally, so fast off the ground, she has such a good arm, and she’s not a passer. She’s not a ball-control kid. We needed to get more physical in the middle blocking and we were a little worried about them coming at her with quicks and stuff like that, but we knew that going side to side and closing and going up and blocking on the pins, she was going to be plenty physical. So that made a difference going from 2019 into ’20.”
Tealer admitted that the transition was torturous at times.
“Absolutely. I was in tears,” Tealer said. She said there were times she said to herself, “I didn’t think it was going to work, this is awful.”
“But it’s part of the process and it ended up working. But there were a lot of practices where I was so frustrated with myself and wondering why they thought this could work.”
She credited ninth-year Kentucky assistant Anders Nelson, who played middle at Ball State, for much of the guidance.
“He’s the one who’s been working with me,” Tealer said. “All of them have, but he’s the one who’s been tactical and all that kind of stuff.”
They studied Western Kentucky middle Lauren Matthews. Matthews, the 6-foot senior who currently leads the NCAA in hitting percentage at .490, was also a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American last spring.
“She’s amazing. Unreal.” Tealer said. “She runs a higher tempo in the middle and they said we were going to try to simulate that.”
She watched video of Matthews, Tealer said, adding that Matthews probably has no idea she was a role model. Interestingly, Kentucky eliminated WKU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last spring. Not surprisingly, Matthews led her team with nine kills and hit .412 with three blocks, one solo. Tealer had eight kills with one error in nine attacks in that match, an ace, a block, and a dig.
Winning that title was not unexpected, not for Kentucky.
“We talked about it so often. From the get-go,” Tealer admitted. “Our senior class was unreal, our junior class was unreal, our freshman class coming in was No. 1 in the country. We all knew. This was our year and we’re gonna do it. It’s something we talked about a lot.”
Tealer picked up this season where she left off last spring.
“Every single point,” Stumler said. “Never takes a point off. She’s amazing and motivating and inspiring.”
This season, for example, Tealer has had only three matches in which she had as many as four errors. In that rematch at South Carolina last week, she had 11 kills with one error in 14 attacks with five blocks, and then against Georgia had nine kills in 14 swings with two errors and four blocks.
She’s averaging 2.69 kills per set, hitting, as mentioned, .443, had 17 aces — tied with Stumler for the team lead — and has 104 blocks, 1.28/set. Reagan Rutherford is next on the Kentucky team with 57.
Understand that the transition to middle got her a new position, but before that Tealer was pretty good. She was a member of the 2019 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 and she played on a 2019 USA junior national team coached by Jerritt Elliott of Texas that included Texas’ Logan Eggleston, Skylar Fields, and Molly Phillips; Stanford’s Kendall Kipp, BYU’s Heather Gneiting, Oregon’s Brooke Nuneviller, Washington’s Ella May Powell, “the team was just insane.” (Side note: Tealer and Phillips were longtime club teammates and Kentucky, of course, beat Texas in the national-championship match last spring).
Tealer, a journalism major, would like to get into broadcasting. But that’s a while off.
Obviously, the chance to repeat is there. She can play two more years in college. And then, hopefully, she will get to play professionally.
“Playing volleyball for as long as possible,” Tealer said, “that would be really cool.”