Lady Vols recruit Anastasia Hayes hits the ground (and the mall) running in Knoxville

After three key players left during the offseason, Anastasia Hayes and her fellow incoming freshmen are hoping to step up for Holly Warlick. Courtesy Tennessee

Anastasia Hayes officially began a new chapter of her life June 1, 2017, when her family rolled up to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with a car full of everything she would need for her first year of college. They spent the day transporting the boxes into her new residence hall.

Hayes is one of four freshmen in Tennessee's highly touted (and top-ranked) 2017 recruiting class. The Tennessee native is the seventh overall prospect in the 2017 class and the third-ranked point guard. She and her teammates are arriving at a much-needed time. Leading scorer Diamond DeShields made a late decision to turn pro, Alexa Middleton transferred to Iowa State, and Te'a Cooper transferred to South Carolina, so the Lady Vols will be turning to their talented recruiting class to fill some of the gaps.

"[DeShields] did what was best for her, and I respect that," Hayes said. "It just means that I have to step up as a leader. I still think we're going to make things happen. I'm not really upset or anything about it. It just makes me realize that I have to come in ready for anything."

Without Deshields, Cooper and Middleton, Hayes is finding team support (and friends) in the other three members of the Lady Vols' freshman class: Evina Westbrook, Rennia Davis, and Kasiyahna Kushkituah. All four recruits were selected to the McDonald's All American Game as seniors.

"I'm excited to play with people who are really good, and who I trust," said Hayes, who led Riverdale High School (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) to its second straight state title as a senior. "I'm going to make them look good, and they're going to make me look good."

Hayes, Davis and Kushkituah have been on campus since June. The three of them do almost everything together, including making weekly trips to the local mall to feed Kushkituah's shopping habit. They eat together and go to church together. "We do stuff normal teenagers do," Hayes said, though she conceded that going to the mall all the time is probably not normal. Westbrook, who arrived on campus this week in time for the second summer session, will be a part of their crew in no time.

The church they attend is the same church Pat Summitt went to. Hayes feels the presence of the late coaching legend everywhere she turns on campus. Summitt is present in the statue outside of the practice facility and in the advice given to Hayes by her coaches. "You see or hear Coach Pat every day around campus," Hayes said. "I did not know her, but I feel like I did because of how people embrace her."

Hayes is looking to build on Summitt's legacy while ushering in a new era of Lady Vols success. That desire has not come without the realization that high school practices and college practices are not created equally. In high school, she could get away with not always talking on defense or missing the occasional layup. "In college, they don't play about things like that," she said.

Since she has arrived to campus, Hayes' life has been a bit of a whirlwind. She has had orientation, classes, practices and homework. Hayes wants to be an orthodontist. She points to her own experience with braces as the impetus for her drive to gift smiles to others. "I felt like when I got my braces off, I had the brightest smile," Hayes said. "I want to make other people feel that way."

One afternoon she was sitting on her bed, going through her schedule, when she had an epiphany. Now that she was off on her own in college, her mother wasn't going to be there to get her through the day. She was alone and needed to make these decisions herself. "I really have to grow up," she said.

The oldest of five children -- including three basketball-playing sisters whom she expects to be at all of her home games -- Hayes is no stranger to responsibility. It is something she points to continuously as a necessity in her life. She is responsible for her younger siblings, even when they are annoying and try to get her in trouble ("It's their job," she said). She is responsible in the classroom, even when it's hard and she is not sure how to get everything done. She is also responsible on the court, and as a point guard, she needs to be.

If the burden of Tennessee's success rests on the strength of Hayes' point guard play, she isn't concerned. The Lady Vols have not been to a Final Four since 2008. Hayes plans on this class of Lady Vols ending that drought sooner rather than later. She wants to win an SEC championship and a national championship. Ask her for a timeline and she will tell you that this year is as good as any.

"I try to succeed in everything I do," Hayes said. "I hate losing."