For the UT volleyball team, transition and change was the theme this summer as Coach Rob Patrick introduced five new freshmen to the team.
With only three returning seniors, the freshmen are expected to play a major role in the coming months, when the team looks to continue its streak of five straight postseason appearances.
However, the Lady Vols have depended on both seniors and freshmen so far, following this past weekend's season opening Cincinnati Invitational, where the team went 2-1. Senior libero Ellen Mullins led the team with 72 digs, and freshman middle blocker Ashley Mariani led the way offensively with 38 kills.
"I was very happy with the way the tournament ended up for us," Patrick said. "We improved throughout every match and even though we lost the last match, we actually played really well and more organized than the other two matches."
The Lady Vols started off the season with doubleheader wins in a 3-2 victory over Morehead State and a 3-0 trouncing of Cincinatti before ultimately losing their final match against Butler, 3-0.
"From the first match to the last match we were a completely different team," Mullins said. "Once all the newcomers played in their first match it was a complete difference by the end of the weekend."
Mullins and Mariani led the invitational in digs and kills, respectively. And following the matches, Mullins was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for the fifth time in her career.
"I played really good defense the first weekend of play," Mullins said. "But I couldn't receive these honors without my team and their support."
One of the surprises to come out of the weekend was the spectacular play of Mariani, a newcomer from Arlington, Texas.
"It's really exciting," Mariani said. "I actually wasn't expecting to do this well this early."
Her play hasn't gone unnoticed by her teammates.
"She did so well," Mullins said. "I'm so proud being a freshman and coming in and doing such a good job and it's a really big deal."
Coach Patrick also expressed his excitement in the emergence of a freshman this early in the season.
"We needed somebody to contribute," Patrick said. "I was actually a little surprised by how effective she was so early. I thought she was going to be this effective but maybe not the first weekend of the first season of her career."
Behind the strong start by the freshmen, Coach Patrick has also strongly relied upon the leadership of his upperclassmen.
"The one person that had to step up was Ellen Mullins," Patrick said. "She has the most experience and she is the leader of our team. She has been a mainstay of consistent, solid play while our freshmen try to get their feet wet figuring out college volleyball."
The team is on the road for the second straight weekend as part of the Country Inns and Suites Invitational in Chattanooga. The Lady Vols will take on UT-Chattanooga, UNC Asheville, UT-Martin and Charlotte in a three-day span.
The first home match is scheduled for Sept. 12, when UT takes on Austin Peay at 4:30 p.m. inside Thompson-Boling Arena.