Vicki Baugh tore her ACL on April 8 in Tampa after slashing through the lane on a high-post drive to put the Lady Vols up, 55-44, against Stanford. In a moment that became part of Lady Vol lore, Baugh was helped off the court but as she limped to the sideline with tears streaming down her face she yelled at her visibly distraught teammates, "Let's go, y'all! Win this!"
Tennessee went on to win, 64-48, and tally the program's eighth national title. For the five senior starters – that was followed by a whirlwind of the WNBA draft, wrapping up schoolwork and moving to a new city for training camp. For the freshman Baugh, it meant preparing for surgery. She started rehab, finished the last month of classes and final exams and then had her knee operation on May 13.
"She's only at four and a half months, if that, four months and a week, but she's doing extremely well, and we're going to work towards October 17," Moshak said.
October 17 is the first day of official practice for the 2008-09 season. It's the target date for Baugh being cleared to participate in basketball activities.
"We're working towards it," said Moshak, who characterized Baugh's progress "as about how I thought."
"I've been rehabbing every day with Jenny," Baugh said. "I never let any free time go by. If I can do something to help my knee I will. Jenny says I'm right on track for practicing the first official day."
That seems surprising, but there had been signs that Baugh was doing well. During individual workouts, she shot on a side basket and would occasionally leave her feet. Her sideline activities have included lateral slides, a huge step for an ACL rehab.
On Monday, she jogged while dribbling across the court and then joined Cait McMahan, who is rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery, in scooting up the arena steps.
"That's phenomenal," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.
"I'm not surprised anymore," Baugh said. "Jenny's the best. When she told me that we're going to work to get back for the first practice I was definitely happy and excited about that."
Lockwood, who worked extensively with Baugh last season in the post, said her progress was a delightful surprise.
"She's a strong kid, she's in great condition so obviously that increases your chances, but if you had asked me on April 15th or 20th I would have said, ‘Boy, that's a long shot,' " Lockwood said. "But then as you heard the reports periodically they were very pleased with her progress. You saw her walk around, you then start to be a believer and say, ‘Gosh, I don't doubt this anymore.' "
Pat Summitt and the three assistants have no say in when Baugh is cleared to return. That decision is left to Moshak, who also has the authority to remove a player from practice for medical reasons. But the coaches can't help but steal glances at Baugh's rehab work on the sidelines.
"We have so much faith in Jenny and her crew we leave that entirely up to them, but all four of us at one time or another we're watching when she's going through the stuff," Lockwood said.
Being cleared is the first step. Then the knee must respond well to performing basketball moves such as jumping, moving laterally and pivoting. If the knee responds well Baugh can continue. If she has setbacks, especially swelling, then she's pulled back. It's standard protocol as a player returns from knee injury, and it's done in incremental steps.
Baugh's approach is to trust her left knee, play and see what happens.
"When I'm ready to step on the court I'm not going to put any ease on my knee," Baugh said. "I'm not going to land all on my right. I'm going to treat it like it's a healthy knee because if I'm back that means it's healthy enough for me to get going and play my regular speed. I am going to take it like I never went into surgery, and I'm going to be ready."
Baugh didn't return home to Sacramento, Calif., except for one quick trip before the fall semester started. She spent the summer in Knoxville going to school and rehabbing her knee.
"I sacrificed it all," Baugh said. "I'm ready to get back and play with this team. That was the whole point of me staying the whole summer and sacrificing all my time because I want to play with this crew this year. I am really excited to hear that I probably won't have to redshirt."
Baugh's determination didn't escape the eyes of the coaches.
"Obviously she took this whole thing very, very seriously and her commitment to the team she placed it ahead of her desire to be home, which to me speaks volumes about her commitment to the team," Lockwood said. "I can't say enough about her. In terms of her credibility with her teammates and her coaches, that has earned her big points."
Initially Baugh didn't think the injury was that serious.
"My mind was somewhere like a little tweak in my knee, and I'm going to be fine," she said. "I've never been seriously hurt like this. It's different, but it's just another brick in the road."
Baugh had some difficult moments over the summer, mainly due to the isolation of rehabbing while teammates were in and out of town.
"I went through a down time," Baugh said. "I mean just doing straight leg raises. I had to build up the quad when I first got out. That took two weeks so that got really boring and I would just sit there for hours doing straight leg raises. Once I got past that point and got my quad strong enough to be able to go to the weight room to do other things, I've been fine since then. It really helps, and once I was off those crutches that brought a really big smile to my face."
Baugh stayed in contact with a former Lady Vol, Candace Parker, who came back from the same surgery. She also talked to Alex Fuller, a senior on this year's team who missed a year because of ACL surgery.
"Alex tells me all the time that it's frustrating trying to get through the rehab," Baugh said. "I'm excited, because rehab is like a joy to me now because I know that it's all to get back for this year, and I'm getting back for the first practice."
Parker told the media in Tampa that the next All-American at Tennessee would be Baugh. The sophomore forward smiled shyly when the comment was relayed to her.
"Me and Can played together on the court a little, and she saw my potential from day one to see what I could be, reminding her of herself a little bit when I was first coming in," Baugh said. "She just knows our far I can take my game if I'm willing to put the work in."
Parker also shared that thought with Lockwood.
"She's told me that, too: ‘That's the one. I'm really counting on her,' " Lockwood said. "And who could get us night in and night out a solid 14, 15 points a night? Who's capable of that? Vicki would be one of those people that you'd have to say, ‘Yes, she is capable.' She can score from different places on the floor and run the floor and her rebounding (will generate points)."
Lockwood hesitates to compare the players out of fairness to both of them. Parker was a three-time All-American in college, two-time Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and earned every major national award, along with two national title rings. Baugh is starting her second year of college after spending her freshman year learning to play with her back to the basket.
But Lockwood also knows how much better Tennessee would be with Baugh in the lineup.
"We're real pleased with what we're seeing right now with people, but she's the one player that we look at that has that multidimensional quality (similar to Parker)," Lockwood said. "I think it's unfair to both of them (to try and compare) but when you say what did we lose in Candace, Candace was a great low-block presence but Candace also had the mid-post game. She developed where she could hit a 17, 18-footer and she developed where she could hit an open three.
"Vicki presents that multi-dimension; she's not strictly a low-block player. She runs the floor, she's a slashing rebounder who can rebound from the low-block position or crash from the high post or the wings. She can play in transition. She can play in the half-court. She can mid-post. She can face up. She can drive now pretty good. That's the kid that gives us the multi-dimension that we don't have right now. She gives us another shot of something good period and another shot of something we don't have entirely right now."
Baugh would also give the Lady Vols another player to anchor in the post with redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, who has shown that she get position on the low block and finish. Trying to defend both of them – the 6'6 Cain with soft hands and the 6'4 slashing Baugh with a knack for the glass – would present considerable challenges.
"It's exciting because they both have size, and they both have diverse skills," Lockwood said. "You play them together and two post players are going to have to guard two very different things with those two. It's exciting to think of those two together and some of the other combinations – Glory (Johnson), Alex, Lyssi (Brewer). It's a nice spectrum."
The coaches are wired to be cautious and not count on Baugh being back until they see how she does on the court, but they also take their cues from Moshak.
"When Jenny is optimistic, I'm optimistic. When Jenny is not optimistic, I'm not optimistic," Summitt said. "With Vicki she's very pleased with where she is and the progress she's made in the time she's had."
Baugh also used the down time to work on her outside shot. During the individual workouts she shot on a side basket and drew attention for how many shots she hit from all spots on the floor. Everything about her shot is improved – form, range and consistency.
"She hasn't been able to go up and down the floor (so she used the time for) stationary shooting," Summitt said. "Her shot looks really good. That's one positive thing that's come out of this injury is she has really been able to improve her shot."
Lofting shots was one way for Baugh to stay busy.
"It's really hard for me to watch practice, especially because I am so active," Baugh said. "I can't just sit down. I have to walk around. It's really hard for me to watch but at the same time I'm excited seeing how great they're doing. I'm moving forward in rehab, there's a high possibility that I'm going to practice the first time so I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fun."
Baugh does have some company on the sideline this month. McMahan had surgery to clean out her right knee and is expected back for the start of practice.
"As far as for me not being lonely (it's welcome), but I'd much rather see one of my teammates back on the floor than joining me in rehab," Baugh said.
"Whenever Nicky or Can or Lex play each other and seeing Shannon, it's just fun," Baugh said. "It's fun watching them knowing that I played with all of them. That just makes me want to pursue my goal of going into the WNBA."
Baugh was in good spirits Monday after practice – the coaches started putting in offensive concepts with the newcomers – and sees the proverbial light at the end of the long tunnel of recovery from knee surgery. She also has kept her eye on the court and has been impressed with the freshmen.
"I am so excited," Baugh said. "I wouldn't ask for a different class. I am really excited about this team. We hang out off the court all the time. They're really cool. We get along. I think the chemistry's not going to be a problem in building on this team because we're all so familiar with each other every day hanging out. We know each other's game. They're good. Fast. Quick. I'm excited."
That chemistry was apparent by her bandaged right thumb, which should be healed in a few weeks. It happened after Cain came to the defense of the 5'2 Briana Bass in a pillow fight.
"We were horse-playing around," Baugh said. "It's actually very funny. Me and little Bri play around all the time. She decides to hit me with a pillow when we were hanging out. I was going to hit her back with a pillow and since she's so little Kelley thought I was attacking her so she blocked me, and my hand slid on her watch. It got cut open and took a chunk out of my thumb.
"I'm still waiting for the right time to get Bri back."
That type of camaraderie is critical for any team, but especially a young one. Tennessee could fly under the radar – one preseason poll had the Lady Vols ranked No. 9, another put them at No. 4 – because so little is known about them on the national scene so far. Tennessee is not the preseason favorite to win it all and the season has been projected as a rebuilding year.
"That's one thing I love so much about this year and I can't wait to play," Baugh said. "This is the most freshmen I think Pat's ever had, the youngest class in all. I'm excited to make history in different ways. We're coming in with a whole new team."
Summitt signed a Six Pack in 2004, but two of them, Parker and Fuller, had to redshirt because of knee injuries so only four started the season. The freshman Six Pack of 2008 are all on the practice court.
"I won a championship already so I want it even more this year because doing it with this crew would be awesome," Baugh said. "We lost a top player in the nation, five seniors. I am really looking forward to this year. I think this is the year that's going to be my best year in college and same goal as last year: Step by step, game by game, win that title."
The chances of that increase with Baugh on the court. The coaches hope for that, but they are conditioned to be cautious. They also know that a return to the court from knee surgery can be a cycle of stop and go sometimes.
"We're not trying to tease ourselves," Lockwood said. "It would be cruel to say, ‘OK, we're going to have her from day one.' We're saying whenever she comes it's a huge bonus and up until that point we've got to get the team that's ready right now to be ready.
"We don't get in the mindset where we're pushing too far ahead, but let me tell you, we all think about her and say, ‘Oh my gosh, would we be that much better with Vicki Baugh?' Oh my gosh, yes. Yes, yes, yes."