The volleyball program hasn’t made much of an impact in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference before this year, but that changed with the arrival of rookie coach Alexis Emanuel.
The Lady Dragons are coming off their most successful season ever – finishing 26-15 overall and 13-6 in the SIAC, which was good enough for a NO. 2 finish in the SIAC West in the regular season. They qualified for the conference tournament and were eliminated by Edward Waters in the semifinals.
“This has been a fun season,” said Emanuel, who was named the SIAC’s Coach of the Year. “There were a lot of things we accomplished this year like teams we were able to beat that none of these girls had ever beaten before.
“And seeing those girls enjoy that made this even more fun for me personally.”
Emanuel is from the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas and came to Tennessee to play college volleyball at Fisk University in Nashville. After graduating, she was an assistant coach for a few years before coming to Lane for her first job as a head coach.
“I arrived on campus on Jan. 4 and started doing workouts with the returning players. Some of them wanted to be pushed and some didn’t,” Emanuel said. “And for the ones that didn’t, we had tryouts to find replacements for and I started recruiting pretty heavily.”
Emanuel recruited the Dallas and Houston areas pretty hard because she’s got contacts there and knows the caliber of athlete available in those cities.
“Volleyball is a big sport there, and there are more opportunities for athletes to get instruction and training at a high level in club volleyball,” Emanuel said. “Fortunately I was able to get a few girls that bought in and we got them on campus for Dragon Academy in the summer.”
The preseason work was noticeably tougher than in years past for the older players, but it didn’t take long to figure out it would serve a purpose.
“We won our first four games in a tournament at home to start the season,” Emanuel said. “But after that second win over Talladega (Ala.) was when we came back in the lockerroom and said, ‘We can be a really good team!’ because of how well we’d played and we were doing things that hadn’t been done in the past.”
From there the season was a successful one. The Lady Dragons never had a long win streak but would typically win three or four in a row with only one loss at a time. And while they didn’t beat the better teams in the conference, they did force them into more competitive matches, showing growth as a program.
Bre’elle Hawkins was the most impactful on the team, leading the team in kills (348), aces (52) and digs (359) while also being among team leaders in assists (26) and blocks (39). Setter Jazmyne Jones led in assists with 1,088, while Kyra Gaston was the leading blocker with 101.
Now Emanuel has a full offseason with the players. They lose four seniors to graduation, but the coach has a better idea of what the program needs in its next class of Dragons. And the players are doing more work in the offseason.
“I’ve got the defensive players joining the tennis team to keep them in shape and get them working on their reflexes going after balls coming over the net,” Emanuel said. “And most of the rest of the team will be on the track and field team to work on their overall speed and agility.
“And we’ll get spring work in when we can while balancing those two schedules. But the returning players are all in with this program, and they’re ready to bring it to the next level.”