Angie Bjorklund back on track

Angie Bjorklund is back to doing what she does best – draining perimeter shots. The sophomore, who ended up drained mentally and physically last season, said she now feels rejuvenated in the gym.

"Last year I went right from high school into USA (summer basketball) and starting college and finally I just kind of hit a wall," Angie Bjorklund said. "I've never been so excited to get back into it. I know what it's like. I know what it takes. It's going to be completely different. I'm looking forward to it."

She started 30 of Tennessee's 38 games and was second on the team in made three-pointers with 68 – just 10 behind Shannon Bobbitt, the leader with 78 – but Bjorklund struggled offensively in the latter part of the season as she battled fatigue and the effects of a long year on a freshman.

Bobbitt is one of four players from the 2007-08 team that are now playing significant minutes in the WNBA, and those personnel losses for the Lady Vols are not lost on Bjorklund, who, although she is just a second-year player, knows she must take a leadership role on the 2008-09 team.

That is exactly her mindset since individual workouts got underway last week with the assistant coaches.

"I've been there, done that, learned from the best having our teammates last year," Bjorklund said. "They taught us everything, exactly what it takes to win. These freshmen might not have that knowledge yet, but they're going to figure it out, and I'm going to do everything I can to help them through it.

"At the same time, I've never seen a harder-working group of freshmen. They're so into their workouts, they're focused, they're excited to be here, and I'm excited. I didn't know what to expect, but by the workouts I'm excited."

The six newcomers plus redshirt freshman Kelley Cain were among those who participated in individual workouts Thursday with an emphasis on defensive principles, shooting and screening action.

"We're learning the main drills and defense, the things you need to learn," said freshman Shekinna Stricklen, the first Lady Vol basketball player from the state of Arkansas. "Coming in to college things are so different than high school. (These are) things we need to know before we all start practicing together. We'll already know these things and once we put it all together everybody will know what they're supposed to do, and we'll all be ready to go."

Stricklen, a 6'2 guard/forward, is a candidate to join Bjorklund, a 6'0 guard/forward, on the perimeter and become another long-range shooter for Tennessee. That would give the Lady Vols a pretty tall tandem behind the arc.

Bjorklund is anticipating full-scale practices starting in mid-October, so that she can see the freshmen as a unit, not just within the format of individual workouts, which are limited to four players on the court at one time.

"I've read about them and heard about them," Bjorklund said. "I'm excited to start practice and get going."

Bjorklund is back to taking shots in the gym after being forced off the court for arthroscopic knee surgery in July to repair a torn medial meniscus. She felt a tweak in her right knee and went to Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, who scheduled a medical exam. That revealed the meniscus tear and the need for surgery.

"It's been a long summer rehabbing, but at the same time I'm ready to get back," Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund is under orders to pace herself in the workouts by going hard in one drill and then shooting on a side basket, rotating back into the drill and then back to shooting. The benefit is that she is taking a lot of jump shots.

Tennessee goes into this fall without the hype and expectations of last season when the Lady Vols were the defending national champions and looking to repeat. This year's team has already heard the silence.

"It almost like a motivation for us," Bjorklund said. "People are like, ‘Look what they lost.' We're going to use that as motivation just as we did last year in postseason (when the national prognosticators kept picking against Tennessee). We'll use what we can to motivate ourselves and that's definitely one of them – being the underdog and showing people that we can."

The newcomers also are aware that national expectations have been lowered this season with a roster of seven freshmen, four sophomores and one senior.

"I know a lot of people think that we've got all these freshmen, they're so young," Stricklen said. "We've all talked about it, all the freshmen. A lot of people are probably doubting us. We're just going to come out here and give it all we've got."

Sometimes just being able to give that effort can become motivation. Bjorklund said her knee injury caused her to review what happened at the end of last season and develop an appreciation for how quickly play can stop.

"It was a good mental break, and it gave me time to step back," Bjorklund said. "You never know when injuries come, and I can't take that for granted. It was a learning experience."

Most of the summer ended up being devoted to rehab sessions, but Bjorklund was able to take a much-needed two-week trip home to Washington – she is the first Lady Vol basketball player from that state – to visit with her family and be in the wedding of her sister, Jami, a senior who plays basketball for Gonzaga.

"Oh my gosh, yes," Bjorklund said. "A break at home to see family and support my sister and be in her wedding, I needed that. It was good."

Tennessee will play Gonzaga on Dec. 30 in Spokane – Part II of the TennZaga game with the Bjorklund sisters squaring off in a homecoming game for Bjorklund after Gonzaga came to Knoxville last season – and that will allow Bjorklund another trip home in 2008.

"I'm really excited," Bjorklund. "I got my Christmas vacation extended a little bit because it's right after Christmas so that was exciting."

The Lady Vols play Stanford in Knoxville on Dec. 21, and then Pat Summitt will release the team for a holiday break that should be five or six days in length. It makes sense for Bjorklund to let the team come to her, rather than fly to Tennessee for a day and turn around and fly right back to Spokane.

Spokane is a basketball-savvy area, and the Tennessee-Gonzaga game is expected to generate tremendous interest among fans of both programs.

"That's going to be fun," Bjorklund said. "My parents are going to have the team over for dinner. I get to play against Jami one last time."

Stricklen can talk to Bjorklund about what it's like to represent a state in the Lady Vol program and how to adjust to being away from home. The state of Arkansas had hoped to keep Stricklen, two-time Gatorade state Player of the Year and McDonald's, Parade and WBCA All-American, within the borders, and initially she thought that would happen.

"At the beginning of my recruiting I was really looking forward to staying home," said Stricklen, who drew interest from colleges, including Tennessee, as a ninth grader. "A lot of people probably didn't think I would leave home. My family was always at my games.

"But this has been a dream for me to play at Tennessee. Chamique Holdsclaw was my role model. My family was behind me 100 percent. I have been homesick, but I am getting over that. I'm enjoying it, and I love it here."

The freshmen also can talk to Bjorklund about what it's like to be counted on so quickly in college and how to avoid slamming into a wall before the season is over.

"It's making sure you're taking care of yourself off the court," said Bjorklund, who drained a bottle of water during her interview. "I think it's huge. You want as less stress off the court as you can, and that's going to help mentally, too.

"Keeping up with your schoolwork, getting enough sleep, eating right. I know they really look up to us, and I can tell them that, but I need to set the example. I can tell them all day but since I've been there I need to be the example."

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