Lady Vols officially start

After a nearly three-hour practice to officially start the 2008-09 season Angie Bjorklund headed to the sideline for a bag of ice. But when she saw a teammate running extra conditioning sprints she tore off the bag and headed to the baseline to help her meet her times. Kelley Cain had just finished a media interview when she noticed her teammates. She hustled to the line and sprinted with them.

That kind of esprit de corps will be crucial for a young Tennessee team this season. Coach Pat Summitt credits the lone senior on the team, Alex Fuller, with helping to set the tone over the summer.

"I think they connect well with each other," Summitt said. "I think they spent a lot of time together off the floor. I think Alex has done a great job with the team-building and bonding."

The first official session of the season lasted nearly three hours, and surprised at least one freshman who was prepared to go longer.

"We were thinking three plus, three and a half hours," said Alyssia Brewer, who had a summer club coach hold five-hour practices at times. "I have some instances of going that long but not with this conditioning type of practice."

Brewer got a nod from Summitt afterwards for her energy on the floor, as did Kelley Cain and Glory Johnson.

"Lyssi Brewer, that's the best I've seen her get up and down the floor and compete," Summitt said. "Kelley Cain, she's got a great presence, not only inside but when she's running some high ball-screening action. She's got great hands. Glory Johnson is just so active and athletic."

For Brewer and Johnson it was their first official practice at Tennessee.

"It hit me a couple days ago," Johnson said of the realization that she was a Lady Vol. "I was in class and thinking, ‘Wow, we only have a couple more weeks until our first game.' "

August started with one-hour individual workouts twice a week and segued into September with two-hour team sessions once a week. Now, the team will practice for five consecutive days – the players return Saturday morning to Pratt Pavilion – and won't have a day off until Wednesday.

"(By Tuesday's session) I think everybody is going to be fatigued and sore but I think after we get past the first two weeks – we play in three weeks – you just have to have the mental toughness to get through this," Brewer said.

Five of the players on the roster are coming back from knee surgery – three major procedures and two arthroscopic ones, and Vicki Baugh was held out Friday because of swelling – so it's been a mixture of conditioning, weights and court work to try to keep players as medically fit as possible.

"We're gradually working our way up there," said Cain, who missed last year to have her right kneecap realigned and endured an eight-month rehab. "We started off with one hour, then two hours and now we're going close to three. We'll get used to it. It's our first practice, and we're getting closer and closer to our first game, and we're very antsy right now. We want to be there now."

Cain has been to this point before. She got through preseason conditioning and practice and two exhibition games before her knee subluxation forced surgery and a redshirt year. Her approach to her knee now is to ignore it.

"I'm trying so hard not to think about it," Cain said. "Last year I went through all this and got to the second exhibition game. That's going to be my challenge – getting past the second exhibition game. I made it through this part last year."

Once Cain surpasses that point she feels like she will have scaled a psychological wall and can put her knee issues behind her, though she has not shown any signs of having difficulty on the court.

"It's more of a mental thing, not a physical thing," Cain said.

Cain is a redshirt freshman but isn't as raw as the six newcomers in terms of familiarity with the system. For that reason she feels like she has a foot in two doors.

"It's like kind of do, kind of don't," Cain said. "The way I don't feel like a freshman is I know some of these plays, I know these drills, so I can help them through it. But then I feel like a freshman because I didn't play last year."

Cain is certain of the ability of the six freshmen.

"I think they're fast learners," Cain said. "They're half our team so we need them a lot."

Angie Bjorklund realized how good they were when the entire squad assembled.

"Oh, my gosh. From the first day of our team practice I was shocked," Bjorklund said. "I hadn't seen them play that much outside of a few pickup games. It is such a talented freshman squad. I'm excited."

The players seemed eager to get started. Despite the 5 p.m. scheduled time, they were on the floor by 4:30 p.m. before the coaches had even arrived. The gym was a bustle of shooting and stretching activity before Summitt's whistle even blew. They were later joined on the practice floor by former Lady Vol Alberta Auguste, who took some reps with the male practice squad. Auguste is finishing her coursework this semester for a degree in psychology.

The freshman passed their first test Friday by maintaining their level of energy throughout the session, which was up-tempo.

"Their communication is pretty solid," said Summitt, who was "very" happy about the sustained pace.

Four guards got repetitions at the point spot – heir apparent Cait McMahan, freshman understudy Briana Bass and freshmen Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning.

"If Briana can come in and give us some quality minutes there, then obviously with Cait and with her (Bass) and with Shekinna, I think we'll be in good shape," Summitt said.

Summitt is leaning towards leaving Manning on the wing – "She's a good rebounding guard from the perimeter," Summitt said – but in some lineups she wanted Stricklen and Bjorklund firing from the perimeter so she put the ball in Manning's hands.

There were some uneven moments, too, as practice had to be halted for further explanation and in one series the players on the floor committed four consecutive turnovers. But Summitt was also looking for how players responded to mistakes, and she was pleased overall with what she saw.

Brewer had one series that stood out. With the shot clock winding down her perimeter shot was blocked by a taller male practice player. She beat him to the loose ball, took one dribble to create some space from her defender and fired a pass to Amber Gray under the basket. Gray hit the shot with one second left.

"With Pat you can't give up," said Brewer, who finished her first session convinced she made the right decision to come to Tennessee. "That's a weakness, and she will find that in you and try to put you down more and more and more, and it's not in a bad way. It's to motivate you. You just have to think that you have to get past that."

Practice ended with a drill that could have taken two minutes but took longer. The "layup drill" requires players to sprint from basket to basket and make layups from the right side for a full minute. If anyone misses, the clock is reset to one minute, and the drill starts anew. Once the drill is done to perfection from the right side, it switches to the left side.

Nine different players missed with anywhere from 50 to 30 to six seconds left on the clock. It took several resets from both sides of the basket to finish the drill. There are no rest breaks, and the pace must be game speed.

"It was a tough finish," Johnson said.

The drill demands focus to finish a layup while fatigued and feeling the pressure of making the entire team start over with a miss. Players also learn to pick each other up because anyone dwelling on a miss is likely to misfire again.

Summitt saw too many missed layups at the start, so she knew how she wanted to finish.

"When we started out today we weren't making layups," Summitt said. "I like that drill. You've got to be focused."

Bjorklund saw it coming weeks ago. She remembers an hour-long session in September in which the players did the drill and missed layups but with an NCAA-mandated 60 minutes of court time Summitt moved on that day.

"When we had an hour practice we did that once, and we really struggled," Bjorklund said. "We only had an hour so she cut it off early. I think she was like, ‘I can go as long as I want (Friday) so we're going to stay here until we get this right.' I knew she was going to do it."

Bjorklund knows what to expect this year. She also knows she has to share that information.

"For me personally just remembering being a freshman last year and I know exactly what they're going through," Bjorklund said. "I am almost – I am a veteran right now, especially on this squad – and I think that's important to remember what I went through as a freshman and to help them out. I've been there, done that."

The players all know the official start of practice means the first game – Johnson is keeping a daily count, and she noted it was 20 days away – against Carson-Newman in an exhibition on Nov. 6 is drawing near.

"I realized our first game date is less than a month away and I was like, ‘All right.' As soon as it's first practice you get excited," Bjorklund said. "It's almost here."


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