Taber Spani on track after surgery

Taber Spani was working Pat Summitt's basketball camp last June when she happened to look up and see the national title banners. That is when it fully hit her – she described it as a tidal wave of disappointment – that another season had fallen short of orange-and-white expectations.

Taber Spani has spent two seasons at Tennessee and is seeking her first Final Four. Last March was especially frustrating because the Lady Vols lost in the Elite Eight. A win over Notre Dame would have sent Tennessee to the game's biggest stage, but instead the Irish represented the Dayton Region in Indianapolis, and the Lady Vols went home.

"I remember during camp I was hanging out and all of a sudden it was like this wave came over, not depression, but like, ‘Oh, my gosh,' the frustration, disappointment. I looked up," Spani said, referring to the eight national title banners that hang above The Summitt court, "and it was bad."

"But it was also motivation," added the sharpshooting junior forward from Lee's Summit, Mo. "That is something that I know I never want to go through again, and I know no one on our team does. "It is definitely something that is driving us.

Spani didn't wallow in that moment last June. Instead, it motivated her to work even harder over the summer, especially on footwork for defensive purposes and expanding her offensive repertoire to include attacking the basket.

Spani's preseason practices have been curtailed as she recovers from surgery on her left elbow to remove scar tissue. Spani has a visit scheduled this Wednesday with her doctor, and she and Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, will get a progress report.

It is anticipated that Spani, who had surgery last week, could be integrated into practice within one to two weeks after that appointment.

It hasn't kept Spani off the court completely. The left-hander has been launching shots right-handed – her range is just inside the three-point line now – and is connecting with such natural form that she startled Angie Bjorklund.

The former Lady Vol, who is living in Knoxville and rehabbing her foot before heading overseas to play pro basketball, stopped by the arena before Friday's practice and exclaimed that Spani was back. Bjorklund then realized that Spani was shooting right-handed.

Forward Vicki Baugh arrived a few minutes later and teased Spani about her statement that she would be smart post-surgery and ease her way back – Spani has been known to push too hard sometimes – and then Baugh also noticed that Spani wasn't using her left hand to shoot.

Baugh, like Bjorklund, watched with surprise as the off-hand shots kept falling. Baugh shifted from teasing her teammate to cheering for her.

Moshak has given her blessing for Spani to dribble and shoot right-handed while her left elbow recovers from surgery.

The genesis of the injury was a year ago in preseason when Spani dove to catch a ball in a conditioning drill and busted open her elbow. A portion of her bursa sac popped out and had to be reinserted. Spani got stitches, underwent rehab and was OK last season. But scar tissue developed at the injury site, and the pain could no longer be managed with rest and rehab.

"We were trying to do everything we could besides surgery," Spani said. "For the first month and a half of preseason it wasn't getting any better and then surgery was the only option when we went and saw the doctor.

"It killed me to do it. I don't know what to do with myself. But it was getting to the point of where every shot I was getting shooting pains. I'm a volume shooter, so I wanted to be 100 percent (this season)."

Moshak said surgery is always a last resort, but it became clear that Spani's elbow had reached that point.

"She was having trouble with her full extension and some of the range of motion, and now she's got that back," Moshak said. "It was time. You want to try all conservative measures first because once you have surgery you don't go back."

So, Spani plunged into rehab and decided to use the so-called down time to work on her right hand. She already has a very consistent floater in the lane that she is lofting high, making it difficult to block and especially so since a defender would be focused on her left hand.

"I can't sit still and not get better so this is a great time for me to become better at my right hand," Spani said. "That shot might become reliable."

Spani has been off the court before. After her freshman year, during which she played in pain because of turf toe, she was shut down for several months so that the foot could heal.

That deprived Spani of an off-season to work out on her own but that wasn't the case this summer. Spani spent considerable time working on the other side of the ball.

Spani has deep three ball range so she is well suited to play small forward, and she can also post up inside at the power forward spot. On the flip side, she will have to guard threes and fours, as will Glory Johnson, Cierra Burdick, Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen, depending on the lineup on the court at any given time.

"I have taken that challenge," Spani said. "Finally being healthy with my foot I had a summer to get better – feet, mechanics, quickness, agility, stuff with Heather. I finally can do all that. I took that very seriously.

"There are several of us, Strick, Cierra, Alicia, myself, Glory, we're all going to have to guard guards and posts, depending on who's in and what kind of lineup we go with. I think more than anything defense is a mentality, and we've got to be up and we've got to bring pressure."

Spani didn't neglect the offensive side of the ball. She already has three-ball range, so she focused on attacking the basket and being able to score off the bounce.

"That is all I worked on all summer against D1 guys when I played pickup," said Spani, who went to first summer session, worked Pat Summitt's camps, played in the Women's Pilot Rocky Top League and then went home for second session.

"Being that triple threat option (long ball, midrange, penetration) because people are going to take away my left hand and come out and so I have developed the other parts of my game," Spani said.

With the summer of 2010 spent rehabbing her foot and the preseason of 2011 consumed by recovering from elbow surgery, Spani is ready to put medical issues behind her and focus solely on basketball.

"As an athlete absolutely," said Spani, who noted her situation could be much worse. "These are more than nagging, but I am blessed not to have an ACL like Vicki or Kamiko (Williams).

"You have to look at the positive, but I can't stand being hurt and not being out there with my team just kills me. I think this is going to permanently fix the problem."

Spani has lobbied to be allowed to do more, and Moshak watches her closely.

"I am listening to Jenny, but we are trying to force her to be as proactive as possible," Spani said with an impish look. "I strictly do right-handed only. I am not taking any chances."

"I am making her be smart," Moshak said. "She is learning she needs to be smart. Taber's success has come on the shoulders of hard work and that is extremely admirable.

"However, there comes a time when the body needs to heal and that is where we are right now with this elbow. So, she needs to be smart, and I need to pull the reins a little bit."

Spani did manage to get into practice for a few repetitions this week when the team was running a shell of its offenses without contact and without practice guys on the court. To paraphrase the poet Dylan Thomas, she doesn't go gently to the sideline.

"Not at all," Spani said. "We're taking it day by day. I'm ahead on some stuff I was doing, movement stuff and strengthening stuff. I'll see the doctor next week, and we'll go from there."

The staff doesn't have to worry about Spani staying in shape. She managed to somehow improve her conditioning even while her foot was in a cast that summer. When Spani is cleared to practice, she expects to be ready to go cardio-wise.

"Absolutely. Definitely," Spani said. "As much as it's killing me to be out I've got to do everything that I can outside the court to make sure that when I do step back on I'm going to be just as good and hopefully better."

Spani intends for the 2011-12 season to be a lengthy one, too. While that feeling of utter disappointment that washed over her in June has ebbed, it didn't fade away.

"I can't put it aside," Spani said. "It's almost a daily thing where you're always thinking of, ‘What are we working for? Are we getting better?' Is somebody outworking us?' Because we don't want to be that first team that doesn't get to a Final Four.

"I don't want that for our seniors. I don't want that for the legacy that we are trying to leave here. We all want to be winners, and we want that for our coaches and for Tennessee as a whole."

ARIEL UPDATE: Freshman point guard Ariel Massengale remains out under the program's concussion protocol and is officially listed as day to day.

Jenny Moshak said that Massengale, who collided with the shoulder of a teammate as she darted around a screen Monday, still had symptoms from that incident. Massengale didn't see the collision coming and had no way to lessen the blow. The collision also caused a cut under Massengale's eye.

A player doesn't undergo physical and cognitive tests until she is symptom-free and until a player passes those tests and consults with a physician, she won't be cleared for practice.

"Her symptoms are getting better; they're not gone," Moshak said. "And we don't start doing things until they're gone."

PRACTICE NOTES: The Lady Vols had an upbeat and productive session Friday and will scrimmage on Saturday morning. … Mercedes Russell, a 6'5 center from Springfield, Oregon, was at practice on an unofficial visit. She was accompanied by her high school coach. Russell's friend, Stephanie Mavunga, a 6'3 forward from Brownsburg, Ind., is scheduled to arrive Saturday morning for an unofficial visit. Both players are in the class of 2013.

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