Saunders stays true to Tennessee

Brad Davis/The Register-Herald

Wyoming East's Emily Saunders reaches for a rebound as Fairmont Senior's Anysa Jordan defends during the Class AA girls state championship game March 9 in Charleston.

Shockwaves went across the NCAA Division I women’s basketball world Wednesday when Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer announced that head women’s coach Holly Warlick will not be returning next season.

As local basketball fans expected, the decision reverberated not only around the country, but also down into New Richmond, where Tennessee signee Emily Saunders has ruled the hardwood during her high school days.

Saunders signed to play for the Lady Vols back in November with the thoughts that Warlick would be leading the Lady Vols.

Just one month after finishing her high school season and less than two months from starting school in Knoxville, Saunders was reminded just how big a step she is about to take.

Major college basketball is all about success and the landscape can change in a blink.

“I was looking forward to having (Warlick) as my coach, but things don’t always go the way you want them to go,” Saunders said. “She has had several great years at Tennessee, so she has definitely done her part for the program and I wish her the best of luck.”

Saunders first became aware of the coaching change via social media, before she received the official call from Fulmer himself.

“I got on Twitter at school and read that (Tennessee) had parted ways with Holly,” Saunders explained. “At first I didn’t believe it because you see things like that all the time on social media. But, then the AD called me yesterday and told me everything and that is how I found out.”

After going through the recruiting process and falling in love with the Tennessee program, Saunders' reaction to the news could be easily understood.

“At first I was in shock because Holly was the one that recruited me and I had built a really good relationship with the coaching staff and we are all very close.” Saunders said. “Holly came down on a home visit and offered me. She was very involved in my recruiting.”

For some players, the first thought after news of that magnitude would be to seek a transfer. Saunders never wavered in her commitment to Tennessee.

“No, never at all,” Saunders said when asked about any thoughts of a transfer. “I have worked really hard to get this opportunity and no matter what, (Tennessee) is where I want to be. The school suits me and I have really good relationships with the girls on the team.”

Replacing a legend is never easy and rarely goes well at any school, and Tennessee was no exception.

Warlick took on the unenviable task of following legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summit when she was named head coach in 2012. Warlick was a standout point guard under Summitt during her playing days and was a three-time All-American. She had been Summitt’s assistant coach for 27 seasons prior to being named head coach.

In her first season, Warlick led the Lady Vols to a 27-8 record and the Southeastern Conference regular season title. Over her first four seasons, Tennessee made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women’s Tournament three times.

Unfortunately for Warlick, even with her early success, the program was no longer the powerhouse it had become under Summitt, who won eight national titles. Over the past three seasons, the Lady Vols failed to make the Sweet 16 and made a first round exit this year with a loss to UCLA.

Tennessee has not made the Final Four since 2008 when Summitt captured her final national title. 

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