Can the Lady Vols run this season?

One thing has become apparent in September – the Lady Vols intend to run this season. But they have players returning from serious injury, including Taber Spani. Go inside to read how the senior guard is adapting to Tennessee's new tempo.

Taber Spani has settled into a routine of graduate classes, conditioning, court workouts and regular visits with Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.

The senior sharpshooter with deep trey-ball range is entering her last year at Tennessee and after three truncated seasons because of injury, Spani is hoping for a healthy one in the finale.

Spani arrived in Knoxville with no significant injury history – outside of some minor lower back issues – and then developed turf toe and a major foot injury as a freshman, followed by a burst bursa sac in her elbow diving for a ball as a sophomore, and then a serious knee injury early in her junior year after an opponent celebrated a play, backed into Spani and buckled her leg.

The three injuries cost Spani practice time and game appearances, as she tried to strike a balance between helping the team and managing the pain.

The good news for Spani is that she finally feels healed. Head coach Holly Warlick ordered Spani to rest over the summer, and the time off seems to have worked.

"My knee is doing great," Spani said. "It's just getting used to the pounding again. I came in with some back issues, a little bit from high school, and then I had bizarre stuff. I am not injury-prone. It is just bizarre stuff that I don't have control over.

"Once I get into the flow of stuff, I think it's going to be great and once we get through this conditioning and start getting to that baseline level of fitness, I think our bodies are going to do really well. I am really excited about this. We do have to run and personally, and I think I can speak for everyone on our team, I think we love to play that style. I think it's going to be a fun year."

Spani graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in communication and has enrolled in graduate school to study sports psychology. Fellow senior Kamiko Williams also graduated in three years and is getting a second bachelor's degree.

Last year three seniors, Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh and Alicia Manning, were in graduate school.

"I think Tennessee likes to get them in and out and move them," Spani said with a laugh. "If you can get a year of master's paid for, go for it."

Spani has just three classes this semester so she is able to devote more time to basketball – and her physical well-being in between workouts.

"The nice thing is being in grad school I am only in nine hours so I can live in the training room, I can live in the film room, and I can work on things that I might not have had time to before," Spani said.

"I can work extra with footwork or watching film with the coaches. If there is something I can do to be better, on balance, to limit the pounding, and then just living with JMo and getting my body as strong as possible to endure all this pounding, I will do it.

"I wanted my senior year to be in a position where obviously academics come first but basketball is a huge priority, and I wanted to be able to sit in the film room with Holly and coach Elzy and Dean and Jolette during the season and really learn from them, digest, watch other people. Just get feedback."

Spani has two familiar coaches in Warlick and Dean Lockwood and two new ones in Kyra Elzy and Jolette Law. Elzy was a defensive specialist when she was a Lady Vol, and that mind-set is being instilled in the current team.

"Absolutely, and she is so detail focused," Spani said. "Every little thing is important. She doesn't cut any corners and that's what we've been missing a little bit I think. Her intensity and her attention to detail are going to really help us."

Elzy consulted with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, about modifying some of the sessions to make them even more demanding. Sprints have been quadrupled at times, and Gate 10, the steep incline leading up to Neyland Stadium, was somehow made even more challenging than in the past. The good news for Spani is that she has been able to complete the sessions.

"I am holding up," she said. "I am getting through the workouts. My back needs to get adjusted and get a little stronger. This is how it's been every year the first three or four weeks. Have to get adjusted and once that happens you're good to go and build upon it."

A typical day for Spani in preseason consists of conditioning and court sessions, classes, film study, training room recovery, pickup games, cook, eat, homework, sleep, rinse and repeat.

"Monday to Friday is pretty routine," she said.

Pickup games are typically at the end of the day, and the players are tired, but they are still trying to find a higher gear.

"Your body is a little fatigued, but the mind-set is definitely once you get it, let's go, let's push this ball," Spani said. "If you can get into some sort of a habit now then I think once you get into team practice it will be easier. I'm excited."

Full team court sessions, though limited to two hours a week, can start next week – the coaches had been limited to no more than four players on the court per workout – and the Tennessee staff will take advantage of the opportunity. Official practice – with sessions lasting two to three hours – starts in early October.

"Holly reiterates to us push the ball," Spani said. "Go, go, go. This team is made to run because we don't necessarily have a big. A lot of us are better in transition than we are in the half court. It will be fun. I can't wait for team practice."

Sophomore Cierra Burdick battled some nagging injuries last season, mostly involving her back, but she has a clean bill of health and used the summer to get leaner and stronger. That has been beneficial even in the small group workouts, because the players are pushing tempo in those sessions, too.

"We're just running," Burdick said. "We're playing deep for 30 seconds and then we're going to take off fast break.

"That's the game we want to play and that's the game Holly has instilled and that's the game we played four years ago when they won the national championship and we're going back to the old ways, and we've got to prepare for that."

Burdick has also been able to balance her conditioning and court work with the necessary recovery.

"I am always going to be playing with nicks and pains," Burdick said. "I remember Kobe saying there hasn't been a day that he hasn't felt pain in years. It's part of it. We get beat up every single day.

"The best thing I can do is make sure I am staying on top of things, going to treatment, getting rehab and being aware of the little aches and make sure they don't progress into anything bigger."

Lockwood has noted that Burdick is shooting the ball as well as he has ever seen – and he scouted the North Carolina product throughout high school and summer ball. Burdick can score in the paint and also hit midrange shots from the wings and baseline.

Spani has the ability to spread out a defense, as she can connect from well behind the arc.

"A player like that opens up the floor," Lockwood said. "You have to guard more floor. That's one of the things that good teams make you do. They make you guard a lot of floor space. If you're limited with your ability to shoot the ball, your range, you become easier to defend.

"I don't care how quick you are. People can pack it in on you. Whether you're playing against a man or zone, somebody like a Taber Spani … that's one of the things we're counting on for Taber. Taber has got to be able to make those shots so that we can stretch the floor on people and make people have to guard us."

Spani wasn't permitted to get in extra shots last season – an absolute must for a jump shooter's rhythm and sense of timing – because she was under orders to rest her knee. It adversely affected her shot, and the knee pain limited her lift, another hindrance for a shooter. She has been able to get in the gym this preseason.

"I am really excited," Spani said. "It is feeling great. I think with my knee being healthy I am able to get low and use my legs more explosively so my jump shot and finishing at the basket with more power … and obviously my three and deep-ball range, I am really excited about it.

"It is feeling really smooth. You are always improving and trying to work on it, but I really like where it is right now."

Burdick saluted Spani's efforts to get ready for her final year. Spani started last season with All-American-type performances and then the knee injury slowed unraveled her season.

"Tay is looking good," Burdick said. "She has battled some injuries. She is strong, and she is fighting through it and she is working on getting healthy. We all know we need Tay, and we're going to need her to step up big this year.

"Taber has got NBA three-range. When she's hot, she's hot. There is no stopping it."

Spani also has a solid build – her father Gary Spani was an All-American linebacker at Kansas State and played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs – and she brings a football player's mentality to the court. She can step out and hit the three or set up on the blocks in the paint.

"I'll do whatever," Spani said. "It's going to allow for some one-on-one isolation in the post, and I am more than willing to do that. I have worked on it and more than anything I am tired of going up and getting fouled. I want and-ones (score the basket and get fouled).

"That is what I'm watching film of – how to finish, how to get an and-one play, how to use my body and my frame to hopefully be an asset."

Lockwood also noted that a running team – as Tennessee intends to be this season – first has to believe in itself.

"Here's the thing. Sometimes people think to play running you've got to look like an Olympic sprinter. It's a mind-set more than it is a body set," Lockwood said. "Taber has gotten herself in very good condition. She probably recovers as well as anybody on the team. She's got great mental resolve and mental toughness and the ability to get up and down the floor.

"Her ability to win a foot race every time our team races and runs? She's not going to do that all the time. But she will run and push herself and that's what we need. To be quick and be the first ones up and down the floor is great. Don't get me wrong.

"But good running teams are not always the fastest people. It's the people who run the most consistently and continue to push themselves and that's one of the things Taber does well. We're counting on her to fitting in to what we're doing."

A simple question was put to Burdick: Can a young team of four freshmen, four sophomores, one junior and two seniors run all season?

"Definitely," Burdick said. "If you look at us we don't have any huge bodies. We're pretty slim, and we're quick and we're fast. Our posts are running guard times, and our guards are pumping out post weights.

"Heather always says that's the key to being successful. We're more than capable of running and defending."

In addition to Spani's injury history and Burdick's back issues last year, Williams missed half of the season as she recovered from ACL surgery. There are also five newcomers on the team who will log their first minutes for the Lady Vols this season. Burdick's approach is no excuses.

"We're going to have to," Burdick said. "I don't think we can make any excuses for ourselves. Everybody gets injured. Everybody is hurting, but you've got to fight through it. You've got to take care of it in the training room and have JMo help you out. But when you step between those lines, it's game time.

"We've got to play the game that the coaches want us to play and that's locking up and running. I am fully capable, and I am fully faithful in Tay. I believe she is going to be able to play some D and get up and down the floor.

"We do have 11 players. We can sub. And that's the beauty of it. We're going to be subbing a lot because of the pace of the game that we're playing."

Spani has definitely bought in to the system – she has been that way since she stepped on campus – and she has a lot of company on the roster.

"Absolutely. Definitely," Spani said. "The attitude of this team is what I like the most. Everybody is willing to work. There is no complaining. People want to be great, and they want to win.

"We're hungry to win. We're tired of getting SEC championships. It's not good enough when we have more left in our potential. To be hungry is a great thing."


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