Theirs was the turnaround of the year.
In 2017, the Tennessee women finished 12-15, 5-13 in the Southeastern Conference.
Last season under new head coach Eve Rackham? The Vols went 26-6 overall, 16-2 in the SEC.
“It was extremely exciting for us,” said senior outside Tessa Grubbs, who led the team in kills.
And it was a season no one on the team will ever forget, and not just because of the volleyball.
“You go into every season with a lot of hope and you want your team to play to its potential,” Rackham said.
“I thought going into the season we had decent potential. And if we could stay healthy and we could reach that potential, we could win some matches. But I had never been through the SEC, so I didn’t know how we stacked up.”
Rackham was a head coach for the first time in 2018. For the previous 10 years she’d been an assistant to Joe Sagula at North Carolina. The graduate of North Carolina also coached at Colgate, East Carolina and Florida International before returning to her alma mater in 2008.
“My whole career I’d worked for really good people,” Rackham said. “I was lucky. I saw what it was supposed to look like at a lot of different facets. And so I mimicked a lot of what I’d learned and tried to put my own spin on things with my own personality, and really tried to stay true to who I am.”
Last preseason, Tennessee opened with a victory over Michigan State and by the time SEC play began had wins over San Diego and Ohio State and five-set loss to Dayton. And then the Vols opened with a victory at Auburn.
“I think that gave them a lot of confidence. When you can win on the road, it makes your season,” Rackham said. “It snowballed in a good way.”
Along the way, Tennessee beat Missouri twice and swept Florida in the next-to-last regular-season match. The only league losses — in four both times — were to SEC-winner Kentucky.
In the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee’s first trip since 2012, the Vols beat Colorado State before losing to Washington State.
But there was a little more to the last third of the season than just on-court action for Tennessee.
That’s because Rackham was pregnant with her son, Jude, born November 21.
“The day we played Florida. He was born at 1:29 that morning and we played Florida that night,” said Rackham.
She stopped traveling with the team in late October, about a month before she was due.
“I was fine,” she said with a smile. “People were telling me to stop squatting and stuff. Like carrying my bags. It sounds silly but you kind of forget.
“You forget because you’re in coaching mode,” said added with a laugh.
And talk about convenient: Her assistant coach and fiance, Gavin Watt, filled in. They’re getting married next month.
Rackham was quick to point out that she was with the team for the NCAA selection show and at practice the next morning. But she didn’t coach in the NCAA Tournament.
“And that was one of the hardest things,” Rackham said. “There was a lot of guilt, to be honest with you. A lot of guilt on both ends. Because I felt that not being there for the team was the wrong thing, but taking a 7-day-old on a flight across the country to Pullman (Washington) was the wrong thing.
“There was no good option. Everybody was great but you still feel guilt.”
Grubbs pointed out that Rackham was in FaceTime communication with the team before and after matches. And as an added bonus, she has no shortage of baby-sitters and players who simply want to play with Jude.
“The girls loved it and they were excited. I think it’s great for them to see,” Rackahm said. “You can be pregnant, you can be a mom, you can have a career. One doesn’t have to replace the other.”
That message wasn’t lost on Grubbs.
“Jude’s an angel and she’s a superwoman,” Grubbs said. “She did it all pregnant and now with the baby, it’s great.”
“You just do it. It’s not easy. But you just do it and you figure it out.”
Now the next step is figuring out 2019.
Most of the team returns, with a huge exception. Middle Erica Treiber, who graduated this week, was second on the team in kills with 363 (2.9/set), hit a team-leading .392, led the Vols with 25 aces, and led in blocks with 138 (1.1/set), 15 solo. She made the VolleyballMag.com second All-American team.
“We’re going to miss her,” Grubbs admitted.
Accordingly, Grubbs will be the main focus. She had 453 kills (4.19/set), hit .276, and had 35 blocks, 10 solo.
“We’ve got to keep Tessa healthy,” Rackham said. “When you return an All-American you’ve got to count on them match in and match out. We’re also trying to keep her in for six rotations and that’s a role she’s not used to. And try to find her some help, as well.”
“We have a lot of experience returning. I think our team is going to have to learn how to compete and stay hungry after such a good year. We lost to graduation some really key pieces, not only volleyball-wise but I think culture-wise.
“We bring in five new freshmen, so it’s going to be a very different dynamic. A lot of people look at us and say, ‘They have a lot returning,’ but it’s a totally different team than we had before.”
That’s not lost on Grubbs.
“Last year has to push over,” said the product of Tega Cay, S.C., who was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American last season. “If you have one good year you have to prove yourself again the next year.”
Grubbs said the team looked at the arrival of Rackham as a fresh start after the tenure of longtime coach Rob Patrick ended.
“You have a new coach and everything starts over,” she said. “You fight for spots again and have a new perspective and want to come to practice to fight harder to get better because we knew we could be.”
The Vols headed out Tuesday for Italy and France, where they’ll play six matches and spend time in Milan, Genova and Paris. Jude is making his first international trip, as well. And, all the incoming freshman made the trip to Europe, Rackham said.
“This team is trying to figure it out and see what it’s going to be about next fall. I like what we’re doing. We’re doing a lot of learning,” Rackham said with a laugh. “And a lot of people who had smaller roles last year are going to be asked to have much bigger roles and that jump is always challenging.”
One of those players will likely be sophomore right side Danielle Mahaffey.
“She came on maybe two-thirds of the season in,” Rackham said. “She wasn’t asked to do a ton. Now she’s going to be much more of a go-to player. We’ve asked her to play six rotations, so she’s gone from being a fourth or fifth option to being maybe the second option. And playing six rotations, that’s a big jump.”
Last year’s second middle, junior Addisyn Rowe, “is now the middle returning with the most experience,” Rackham said. “She’s going to get more balls in tighter situations. That jump, that learning curve, they’re all trying to figure it out.”
The Vols roster shows four seniors, three juniors, six sophomores — including outside Lily Felts, who made the SEC all-freshman team — and the five freshman.
“We have a lot of potential,” Rackham said.