Up And Running

FAYETTEVILLE -- In her first meeting with her second Lady Razorbacks basketball team this summer, Arkansas coach Susie Gardner asked the players how they wanted to define themselves.

Gardner invited them to brainstorm while she left the swank Arkansas dressing room, and to write their major conclusion on the blackboard.

"The team let me know they wanted to run," Gardner said.

The Lady Razorbacks had expressed the same sentiment from the day Gardner was hired in April 2003, but last season they simply didn't have enough depth to really do it.

Since Arkansas still doesn't have a lot of size compared to most Top-25 teams, Gardner has agreed to go along with her players' high-octane wishes.

"But I got to add something," she said, grinning. "I told them we have to be the best-conditioned team around. That meant a lot of running at 6 a.m. If you noticed more energy in the players (on Tuesday), it's because this is our last week of 6 a.m. running."

When the Lady'Backs go through two-a-day practices on Saturday and Sunday at Bud Walton Arena, all this running stuff will be somewhat new to Gardner also.

"We ran some when I coached Austin Peay, but it was more structured," Gardner said. "I'm even thinking about giving up some of my structure."

There's another big difference in Gardner's approach this season. Last year she put in her offense first in practices. This weekend, for the first seven or eight hours, it will be all defense.

"Depending on how Saturday goes, we may go four more hours on Sunday," she said. "I've got the gym reserved for that long."

Included will be some pressing drills.

"We didn't press a lot at Austin Peay, but one team in our conference did, so that helped us," Gardner said. "I also talked this week to a coach who swore me to secrecy. And I watched a ton of clinic tapes."

Given Gardner's aversion to profanity, might we call the Lady'Backs' new style "Forty Minutes of Heck"?

She chuckled.

"We might have to think of something more original," Gardner said. "The thing is, we might have five players who run like crazy, and then another five who might play a sagging man-to-man."

Gardner has already told junior guard Rochelle Vaughn she's not likely to play 38 minutes a game again this season, as she did at times for last year's 16-12 team. The new pace won't allow it.

Besides, Gardner can now call on as many as eight guards or wing players: Vaughn and her freshman sister, Brittney; sophomore point guard Kristin Peoples; holdovers April Seggebruch and Adrienne Bush; and newcomers Melissa Hobbs, Sheree Thompson and Allison Singleton.

Actually, the latter three have been at Arkansas but haven't yet played. Thompson suffered a knee injury in preseason, Hobbs transferred from Colorado (and won't be eligible until mid-December) and Singleton of Fort Smith Southside has been a team manager for three years.

"Singleton could be like that 38-year-old guard for the (WNBA's) Connecticut Sun who makes all of her teammates better," Gardner said.

Inside, Gardner adds 6-foot-2 junior college transfer Kristina Andjelkovic of Belgrade, Serbia, and 6-foot freshman Christina Lawrence to a group that includes 6-3 junior Ruby Vaden (still recovering from minor knee surgery), 6-1 junior Kristin Moore and 6-foot sophomore forwards Sarah Pfeifer and Danielle Allen.

"Danielle is back at the 4 spot, where she's more comfortable," Gardner said. "She can run and rebound for us.

"Sarah's shoulder is stable now, but I cringe every time she makes a play. I've talked to our trainer (Phill Vardimann) about how hard she plays, but he said, 'She's going to play like she's going to play.'"

Pfeifer, a team spark plug from Ozark, has even led some conditioning runs this preseason.

While everyone shudders about the 21.8 points per game Arkansas lost when SEC Player of the Year Shameka Christon graduated to the New York Liberty, Gardner looks at the bright side.

"We started a freshman and three sophomores last year," Gardner said. "That was a blessing and a curse, but I think we're getting there. Peoples and I are just emerging. I see that relationship developing.

"The players are joking more with me now when they drop by the office. They started figuring me out last spring. I think the returning players are excited to see what they can do. It's like, 'Now it's our turn to lead the way.'"

The Lady'Backs, who will not take part in Friday's Midnight Madness festivities, will be on view Oct. 28 in the Red-White Game at Bud Walton Arena.

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