Most college teams have to deal with youth in some way, but the Lady Vols tennis team is taking that to a whole new level this season.
Out of the 10 roster spots on the team, six are freshman and the four players that do have experience have a combined eight years of collegiate tennis under their belts.
Even Kayla McMurry, the team's lone senior and a walk-on from Knoxville, is inexperienced. In her three years so far, she has played in 22 singles matches and six doubles matches, giving her the least amount of experience of all the upperclassmen.
Despite an unusually young team, co-head coach Mike Patrick is happy with what he has seen so far in practice before the season opener on Friday in the Furman Fall Classic.
"This is probably one of the better groups we've ever had," Patrick said, "We had probably one of our best practices in years yesterday as a first day of team practice with a young group. They've bought in, and they're getting better every day."
Even with the confidence he has, Patrick understands his team needs time to grow, so he is tempering his expectations for the start of the season.
"It's a foundation year," Patrick said. "It's a year that we're building our base, and putting our next three years ahead of us ... We'll play as well as we can. That's going to be a good level because we've got talent. We just don't have experience."
The freshmen will each develop differently, Patrick said. In spite of that, he still expects his team to be ready by the postseason.
"We need to work at the level that they're working continuously, and then we're going to be competitive," Patrick said. "I don't know when that competitive time (will be). It probably won't be the first week we play. It might not be the 12th week we play. But I think somewhere, you know, towards the end of April is somewhere where we'll become a competitive team."
Patrick is also optimistic in that he believes each freshmen brings a unique skill set.
"There is something about each one of them that is special," Patrick said. "They each have something that they're going to bring to the table that is a little bit different which is going to help them all improve at a good rate. I think the biggest thing is that they're competitive and they do work hard and they do want to get better."
The Lady Vols will have to replace their two best players from last season, Kata Szekely and Brynn Boren, who were fifth in the ITA doubles rankings last year. However, after coaching at UT for more than 20 years, Patrick has faced challenges like this before.
"Well, you know, we had the No. 1 player in the country 10 or 12 years ago, and she left," Patrick said. "That happens. ... But they don't come here great all the time. They come here as good players, and we try to work them hard enough, and if they buy in, and do what they're supposed to, they become great players."
While Patrick does not know exactly which of the newcomers will be an impact player like he has seen in the past, he is confident that there is one among them.
"They're all talented enough to be very good contributors and play at a high level," Patrick said, "I couldn't pick which one is the next All-American, but there is an All-American or two sitting in that group of six kids. So we'll figure out who it is over the next six months."