For Hinkey, Vol is short for volleyball
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. It hasn’t taken Leah Hinkey long to become a notable figure on her college’s campus.In her freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Hinkey, a 2006 Glenwood Springs High School graduate, zipped her way from high school recruit to a starting position on UT’s volleyball team.And Hinkey’s star is still rising.In the postseason, Hinkey was voted to the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman team. She also established herself as the Volunteers’ top middle blocker.It’s been a good year for the 18-year-old, who had to leave her lifelong Glenwood roots for a move 2,000 miles south.”It’s a lot different,” Hinkey said of the environment and culture of the region. “Everyone has huge (Southern) accents – I’ve never been around something like that. The culture is a lot different, especially outside campus. It was a big shock for me at first.”Adapting to collegiate-level volleyball was easier for Hinkey than trying to decipher her teammates’ twangs. But it did take some time for her to adjust to the game.
“When I first got (to UT) it wasn’t bad because I went in the summer. We didn’t start practice because it’s a rule they can’t coach us yet. So we just did open gyms with the girls,” Hinkey explained.A change from the early leisure workouts came when official team practices with the coaching staff started in August.”Once two-a-days started, it wasn’t what I expected. It was so hard,” she said.”The game is so much faster. Coming from a small town and going there, everyone on your team and everyone you play is amazing. Everyone’s athletic.”And tall.”Actually I’m one of the smaller players on my team,” the 6 foot, 1-inch Hinkey said. “Everyone’s huge and amazing in volleyball. I didn’t really expect that.”Another shock, Hinkey said, was being in the Vols’ season-opening starting lineup.
“We were in a (nonconference tournament), so we all thought we might get some playing time because it was the first (event) of the year,” Leah recalled. “My coach didn’t tell me I was starting. He just wrote my name on the white board in the locker room. Then, I saw my number and I started to freak out because I didn’t think I was going to be starting as a freshman in our first game. It was unexpected, but I just went out and played.”Her performance convinced the coaches to keep Hinkey among their top six.”It was one of my best games. I think it set the standard,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I played so much.”Hinkey’s first-year statistics showed why she was one of Colorado’s most-sought-after prep volleyball players.In 2006, Hinkey was among UT’s team leaders in blocks, points scored and kills.Her play, combined with the Vols’ returning lettermen, earned UT a spot in the NCAA postseason volleyball tournament.
That exposed Hinkey to an even higher level of play – along with a new type of spectator.”It was definitely a different level,” she said. “When we found out we made it, that brought so much more pressure. Those two weeks we trained (for the tournament), there was no fun and games at practice. It was intense.”So was the scrutiny.”We hosted in our gym, and it was kind of weird,” said Hinkey. “There were NCAA compliance people with us (all the time) to make sure we followed the rules. We had to do everything perfect, so it put a lot of pressure on us, because we never experience anything like that.”The NCAA cops might have a been a reason why the Volunteers had a quick exit from the tournament. Playing at home in Knoxville, UT lost 3-1 in the first round to Duke.It left and impression and a goal for Hinkey to shoot for next year.”I want to go back because we made it to the Final Four the year before. We only made it through the first round this year. It gave us a taste of it, so we want to get back,” she said.
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