It should be a boost for program sales this Sunday when Tennessee opens with a 4 p.m. exhibition game against Carson-Newman at Thompson-Boling Arena. Although three of the freshmen are out with knee injuries – Alex Fuller (for the season), Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (indefinite) and Candace Parker (indefinite) – the other three should see playing time. Alexis Hornbuckle has been impressive throughout the pre-season; Nicky Anosike has drawn rave reviews from Summitt; and Sybil Dosty has made progress every practice. Freshman walk-on Abby Canon also will be dressed out.
Forging team chemistry can be tricky with so many newcomers – there are seven freshmen on this year's team - as players get to know each other on and off the court.
Summitt addressed the Lady Vols' Boost-Her Club last week and took questions from members in the audience. She was asked how the freshmen were blending in with the veterans. Summitt responded with a very honest assessment.
"It's been good," she said. "I don't feel it's great. In order for it to be great – and I will tell this freshman class this - everybody has to get excited for everybody else. First you get to know each other, and then they really have to genuinely interact with everybody on their team. … The freshman class has to come together and then they have to spread out and connect with all the upperclassmen."
The issue, besides being important for the team on the floor, also can influence a potential teammate of the future. Hornbuckle, the freshman guard from West Virginia, tuned in to Tennessee games as a youngster.
"I used to sit down and watch TV and catch the women's basketball games that came on TV," Hornbuckle said. "Tennessee was playing most of the time. I was like, ‘Oh man, this team is good.' I liked the way the players played together. The team chemistry on there, you could tell by watching, and their enthusiasm every time they hit the court. If something happened, whether good or bad, they were there to pick each other up."
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who is in his first year at Tennessee, previously had only coached men's teams. But chemistry is a universal language, and so far the pre-season signs are encouraging, he said.
"They've been very, very good," Lockwood said of the players. "The true test obviously will be as we continue to move forward. The first phase of the college season is the preseason, phase two official practice to your first game, phase three is your (pre-SEC) schedule and the fourth phase being your conference schedule and the fifth phase being your postseason. The chemistry has been good, and I think it speaks well to the quality of character of the young ladies. There's mutual respect. I think they're developing a trust and developing chemistry for one another. And those things don't just happen overnight. I'm sure there're going to be learning episodes and things we'll go through in that sense. I think they deserve a lot of credit for displaying the kind of character to come in and be accepting of each other and still be competitive and say we're going to push and challenge one another, but off the court we're going to have a mutual respect."
Shyra Ely, a pre-season All-American who has accepted the role of vocal senior leader, echoed that attitude. Ely's voice has been a constant presence in preseason sessions, and she sometimes has called her teammates together mid-practice to remind them to focus. During Sunday's intra-squad scrimmage, the competition was intense with players battling fiercely for inside position and getting tangled up after lunging for loose balls and trying to snare rebounds.
"We're going to compete all the time. We walk off the court, and it's like nothing happened," Ely said.
Summitt said last week that she hasn't yet seen the freshman class and their teammates "pull together," but she acknowledged the injuries to three newcomers has limited their on-court interaction and chances to bond. She is optimistic, though.
"You'll see it come together, and we'll have a common goal, and nobody cares who gets the credit," Summitt said.
After announcing the dropping of names from the jerseys at the Boost-Her Club meeting, Summitt, who was surrounded by her seven freshmen, smiled and said: "So you'd better take a good look."
BOOST-HER CLUB: The club supports all Lady Vol athletic teams and raises money to fund scholarships. The monthly meetings allow members to get together and hear from such luminaries as Summitt and other members of the Tennessee Lady Vol athletic family. Information about the club – joining or making contributions – can be found at www.Boost-HerClub.com.
"As a team I think we're working hard. We just have some things to work on with the new offense … and getting the freshmen in with the offense." -Brittany Jackson on the team's progress so far this pre-season. The coaches are spending a lot of time teaching and walking the players through the various offensive options.
"We're throwing a lot at them. I think they've done a good job of picking up our offense and really trying to execute to the best of their abilities." -Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell after a weekend practice session.
"They've done a great job of being intense and really taking it personally when someone beats them." -Caldwell after the same practice discussing the team's defensive efforts.
"We're always talking about being vocal, lead by example and them taking ownership (of practice). Coach (Summitt) was talking about when it becomes game time; it's really their game. If they can take control of practice a little bit more and being vocal and getting the drill started a little bit early then the transition to game time will be just as effective." -Caldwell
"Effort is there. We're getting a lot of hustle plays. Their pre-season conditioning was great, so we're not having to come in here and condition them. They are in very, very good shape. That helps them." -Caldwell on the team's conditioning, which was handled by Heather Mason.
"She's got a college body, not a high school body." -Coach Pat Summitt on the physical conditioning of freshman center Nicky Anosike, who can hold her own inside the paint and literally stays neck-in-neck with the guards during team sprints.
"Candace looks good." -Summitt on the physical status of freshman forward Candace Parker, who was shooting baskets during the interview Sunday. Parker is out indefinitely while healing from knee surgery but hopes to return this season.
"It's a wait-and-see. It all depends on how she heals and how she rehabs. She's a great rehabber. She's not ever shied away from hard work. I'm optimistic. The thing is we would never want to do anything until Candace – and Dr. (Bill) Youmans also concurs - is pain-free and healthy and ready to go, whenever that is. Then we talk about it, whether it's this year or next year." -Summitt on Parker's status.
"Loree's doing terrific. I think the first three or four days she was testing the court, like testing the water. She has really stepped up, and she's playing with great intensity." -Summitt, during last month's Boost-Her club meeting, on the physical status of senior point guard Loree Moore, who missed half of last season after a major knee injury.