The East Tennessee State volleyball team was back on the road again Wednesday, and couldn’t be happier.
The Bucs bused to Lexington, Ky., to prepare for their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance after a spirited sendoff outside the Dome. The Atlantic Sun Conference champions face the Kentucky Wildcats Friday night at 7:30.
“We got a great sendoff by staff, ETSU faculty and athletes,” said coach Lindsey Devine. “There’s been a lot of excitement the last week or so, but I’m very pleased with how calm our girls have been. They’re treating this like business as usual.”
The Bucs (23-12) will certainly have their hands full with the Wildcats (20-10), who are the No. 16 seed overall and playing in the NCAA tournament for the eighth straight year. Kentucky features five players who are 6-foot-2 or taller; ETSU has one.
“When you play any team in the SEC, they’re taller, and we can’t do anything about that,” said Devine. “They probably play consistently at a faster pace, too. But they’ll underestimate how good a blocking team we are, and how we’re able to distribute our offense through many players. They can’t concentrate on just one.”
The Wildcats will still focus a lot of attention on Megan Devine. The junior outside hitter was the A-Sun player of the year and tournament MVP, capping what has been a dream season for the Devine family.
“We started in January preparing for this year. We added our freshmen and everybody just jumped on board,” said Devine. “We’ve had a lot of support along the way. It’s just been an amazing journey.”
This is still a young ETSU team, with only one senior, setter Kayla Williams. Devine is the only junior.
The sophomore class is five deep and includes Meredith Hardy, an all-conference middle blocker. There are also six freshmen.
Coach Devine, in her 10th season, said she sensed something special may be in the offing back in late August – long before the Bucs beat A-sun powers Florida Gulf Coast and Lipscomb.
“Our first preseason tournament at South Carolina, I just thought the desire and competitive spirit in the group was there,” she said. “ I really believed they were capable of great things. We’ve had our highs and lows, but there has always been a belief that I haven’t seen in other teams I’ve coached.”
The Bucs and Cats have played only once before, at an early-season tournament in 2004. The Cats won in straight sets.
Kentucky features the three-time libero of the year in the Southeastern Conference, Stephanie Kiefot, and a first-team all-conference performer in outside hitter Whitney Billings.
“Kentucky is a great team, an SEC team,” said Megan Devine. “But we’re hoping we’re going to play our best match of the season.”