Amber Gray, one of six true freshmen on the squad, is a 6'1 forward from West Chester, Ohio. She committed to Tennessee in April 2007 after the Lady Vols won the program's seventh national title – number eight would come a year later – and said she wanted to challenge herself against the country's best players every day.
"It's definitely like that," Gray said. "I know other schools are out there working hard, but we have 12 girls who are working hard consistently every single day. It's going to be a competition, and we're going to have to work for it every minute, every play. It's definitely hard work and competition."
Gray's upper body strength is tops on the team. Her bench press is 172 pounds – up from 156 pounds in August – with the next closest on the team being Sydney Smallbone at a 159-pound bench press.
"I went through a strength program with my father (former NFL cornerback Carlton Gray) before I got here and with my (Lakota West High School) basketball team," Gray said.
Gray's conditioning on the court is where she is playing catch-up.
"That's the biggest challenge for me right now, but I'm going to continue to work," said Gray, who was hindered in September with a quad strain and lost some conditioning time. "Heather (Mason) knows where Pat wants us to be, and she's going to push you to the limits and past them to make sure that you're in top condition."
Summitt intends to run this season on offense and press on defense. The pace of practice has underscored those plans.
"It's a totally different game," Gray said. "Coach has always been a running team but this year more so than any other. We're definitely working on getting up and down the floor from our one spot to our five spot.
"We have the potential to run the floor and beat people up and down the floor and press them every second. I'm getting used to it. In high school we were a run-and-go team but it's a different level in the college game."
Gray also had an easier go in high school because her skill level surpassed the other players on the floor. Thus, her biggest adjustment at Tennessee has been the level of conditioning needed to perform at practice to Summitt's standards, which are geared to game tempo in every drill.
"In high school I was able to relax a lot more just because I was better than a lot of the players I was playing against," Gray said. "And now it's constant for the five minutes, the four minutes, however long we are until a TV timeout. It's constant work, constant movement."
Does Summitt think Gray has time to get ready for this season?
"I do," Summitt said. "It's a long season. She's trying to get it right on the court. She asked me to watch film with her (Saturday), which I am looking forward to doing. She is one of our most skilled players, and she's vocal."
Gray also has some swagger about her and will scowl if she doesn't like the way a play turned out on either end of the floor. If she can push herself to get in shape and fight through the fatigue, she could be a key contributor this season.
"I try to go out there and do what I need to do," Gray said. "I know sometimes I feel and the coaches feel that I'm not pushing myself to the fullest. My teammates are out there working hard, and they're getting me better every second of the day. I'm just trying to learn. It's all new, so I am just taking everything in and learning and I just need to push forward."
Gray and the other freshmen are fixed in the moment – practice is spent absorbing information and trying to execute on the court – but she can try to step back and see the big picture of becoming a better basketball player, not just the pain of the fifth consecutive series of sprints after a 2.5-hour practice.
"I'm definitely beginning to do that," Gray said. "I'm definitely starting to think that it is something new, and it is something I'm working for.
"But at the end of the day it's all about my team and when we're going to accomplish our goal, which is a national championship. It's not about that one sprint right now. It's about those three or four plays that are up and down in the national championship game that we're hopefully going to be running past teams and getting to the point that we need to get."
The learning curve for all the freshmen is steep and it's made harder by the fact there are so many of them and so few veterans. Alex Fuller is the only senior on a team that returns just 22 points a game scoring from last year.
Alberta Auguste, who played two years for the Lady Vols and won two national titles – she moved into the starting lineup in the postseason last season – is suiting up occasionally as a practice player. She came to Pratt Pavilion on Friday and used the floor time to not just work out – she's an excellent practice player because of her on-the-ball defense and she knows the system – but to also bend the ears of the freshmen.
"I'm trying to help them out," Auguste said. "I give them an earful sometimes if they guard me. I inform them, but they've got a lot to work on. They work hard, and they don't give up. They've got a lot of fight in them.
"But they need a lot of discipline. I see Alex trying to be a leader, but we need the rest of the returners to be a leader as well. But I think they're going to be all right. They just have to listen. This is what Coach has to say and learn from it and grow from it. They listen and move on and don't take in what really needs to be taken in. I'm helping them out as much as I can."
Auguste will graduate this December with a degree in psychology and then plans to head overseas to play pro ball.
"My agent is working on it, and I'll know (which team) mid-December," Auguste said.
Auguste went to summer school and enrolled this fall to complete the final hours needed for her degree. She knew Summitt and Kerry Howland, an assistant director at the Thornton Center, would hunt her down relentlessly if she didn't get her degree. Since she enrolled they both check in to monitor her classroom performance.
"They've been hunting me since the summer," Auguste said. "The more and more they get on me, the more and more I improve so I appreciate it."
Auguste is ready to finish her class work – "I feel like I've been here forever," she said – but she likes being on the court as a practice player and never drawing the ire of Summitt.
"I enjoy that part," she said.
Gray and the other freshmen are in Summitt's crosshairs now, but Gray can call home for some comfort, though her paternal grandmother will remind her to be tough.
"She's always going to listen, but she's not going to lie to you either," Gray said. "If I have a bad practice she's going to tell me, ‘Well, you need to suck it up and get the job done because you put yourself in this situation. You knew what you were getting into.'
"It's not going to be easy but at the end of the day it's going to be worth it. I am not going to let anything make me step back or rethink the decision that I have made. I am going to continue to work harder because Coach is going to get me in the position where I want to be basketball-wise and school-wise and professionally."
MOSHAK'S MEDICAL MOMENTS: An assortment of players are sporting bruises and wraps with Amber Gray and Cait McMahan being among those with discoloration on their shoulders and arms.
"We just go at it," McMahan said. "It's physical. You have to bring it."
"It's getting very physical," Gray said. "It's physical out there because we're fighting potentially for our jobs, for our playing time, so we're going to do what it takes. We're going down there and banging in the post and our guards are also working hard out on the perimeter."
"They've been OK so I'll take that any day," said Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols' chief of sports medicine.
Stricklen tweaked her right elbow in a hustle play in Thursday morning's practice and now has it wrapped to protect from hyperextension. She banged it again Friday.
"She tried to dive into some chairs the other day and that didn't go over very well," Moshak said. "She didn't damage any ligaments in the elbow or anything like that. She got caught between two chairs and fell on the chair and the chair collapsed on her and today she got sandwiched between two guys with it, so it re-irritated it, but the structures are sound."
Stricklen's elbow was sore for Thursday's second session, but she was able to practice.
"(Friday), she was much, much better until the (sandwich incident), but again I think she's fine," Moshak said. "It's just got to get over it."
Johnson got kneed in the calf by a practice player, but was OK. Manning had her right shoulder wrenched while defending an in-bounds pass but also was able to return to practice.
"It was a scare," Moshak said. "It got put into a funny position. She got out of it. I checked her. She was fine. We'll ice her. We'll treat her. We'll do a few extra things in the weight room to strengthen that up. I think she's OK."
Lefty freshman forward Alyssia Brewer is wearing a wrap – it's not a brace – on her left shoulder.
"It's compression, heat, like a knee sleeve would be," Moshak said. "She feels better with that on so I'm OK with her wearing it."
Redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, who is coming back from surgery last December, wears a protective sleeve on her right knee. Her sprint times have steadily improved, as has her ability to get up and down the court.
"Kelley is getting much better," Moshak said. "I am very happy. What people need to understand is it hasn't even been a year yet. Her surgery was Dec. 11th. It hasn't even been a year, and she's doing extremely well.
"She doesn't swell. There's some discomfort she has to deal with and that's going to be adjusting to the volume. But her quad is exceptionally strong and she's going to keep getting it strong. I have no fear that she's going to be A-OK."
Moshak attributed Cain's sprint times – she has made all the required post times this week and met the guards' time in one sprint Friday – to technical improvements in her form as far as arm movement and baseline turns, and to the improved condition of her knee. The single surgery involved three intricate procedures to realign her right kneecap to stop the chronic subluxations.
"If her knee doesn't hurt she can push herself harder," Moshak said. "We've been working a lot on her technique and that's improved, as well."
The Lady Vols will hold an open practice Saturday at the arena from 1 to 3 p.m. to coincide with the UT-Bama football game – the Vols follow at 3:30 p.m. – but sophomore forward Vicki Baugh is expected to remain sidelined to rehab her left knee. She had ACL surgery last May and had made a few appearances at practices – the last being last Sunday – but her time is spent now in the weight room.
"We've got to get rid of the swelling," Moshak said. "Today doesn't help with the change of temperature and the rain."
Moshak has taken extra precautions such as putting Baugh back on crutches to walk around the sprawling and hilly campus and renewing a temporary handicap sticker for her vehicle so that she can park closer to the buildings.
"We do not want her walking on it a lot," Moshak said.
"She is doing a heck of a lot of treatment, she is using wrap, she's elevating at night, she's on medication, she's doing all her treatments, she's doing all her exercises," Moshak said. "What she needs to understand, as I showed her today, she's got a good quad. It's not equal to the other side. It's got to be more defined and bigger so that it's more equal to the other side, and our total goal is to treat her and keep her in the weight room.
"The court is not going to get her stronger. We've got to keep her in the weight room getting stronger. As she gets stronger then she's going to be able to tolerate the court, and that's the total game plan. The main focus is you do nothing that's going to keep you out of the weight room because the weight room is the key."
Baugh had geared her rehab to be able to practice with the team in October and the setback – though common with knee surgeries, especially an ACL – has been disappointing for her.
"She's frustrated, and that's normal, but her desire to be out there is motivating her to do everything I tell her to do, so that's a plus," Moshak said. "I would be disappointed if she wasn't frustrated to be out there. So I'm OK with that.
"She's got to understand it's a process. She's at five and a half months. The equation is this: You get the muscle stronger; it doesn't put pressure on the knee joints because the muscles handle the forces. Once that muscle gets stronger she'll be able to handle the court and when she gets back to the court we'll have to slowly increase the workload. She'll do half-court stuff, she won't do all of practice, etcetera, etcetera, and build it."
Despite this early setback Moshak believes Baugh is well within the realm of possibility of playing this season.
"There's no doubt about that," Moshak said. "It's just a matter of when."