Lady Vols ink stellar class

After signing back-to-back No. 1-ranked recruiting classes over the last two years – a total of 10 players – Tennessee could have expected a substantial recruiting dip this year but the Lady Vols picked up a trio from the class of 2009 to fill its needs of a post player, combo guard and scorer.

"I think a lot of it is the tradition," Coach Pat Summitt said about her stellar class – rated in the top 10 – that signed last week to play for Tennessee on the heels of two top classes.

The paperwork for all three signees has been received by Tennessee and certified by university compliance officials so Summitt can now publicly comment on the recruits from the high school class of 2009.

"Tradition does matter," Summitt said. "And the exposure. I think our television exposure has helped us recruit coast to coast. Our success. You can have tradition but they can see firsthand your success. Our fan support. We can go on the road, and they follow us everywhere. There are Lady Vol jerseys and T-shirts and shorts all over the country. My assistants do a great job. Obviously they're very visible.

"People say success breeds success. It's true. Now, we add Pratt Pavilion. It's a huge plus. That's what I told Larry in Pratt the other day. It's amazing. We take them in over there and they know they can go there and shoot and work on their skills and not have to sit and wait until somebody gets off the court. It's our court. It's been a combination of all those things."

Larry would be Larry Pratt, a Tennessee supporter and self-made businessman whose name is on the building because of the seed money he provided to build a practice facility available exclusively to the basketball Vols and Lady Vols year-round. Pratt, an unassuming man who nobody would know was the lead donor based on his casual courtside demeanor, had stopped by the facility recently to say hello to the coaches while in town for a football game.

Three more players will have access to that facility with the arrival of letters of intent, or LOIs, from Taber Spani, a 6'1 shooting guard from Lee's Summit, Mo.; Kamiko Williams, a 5'11 combo guard from Clarksville, Tenn.; and Faith Dupree, a 6'3 post from Knoxville, Tenn.

Dupree, who plays for Webb School and former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton Collier, will join former teammate Glory Johnson at Tennessee. The local and state-grown players have picked up of late with Dupree and Williams deciding to wear orange.

"When's the last time we had two in a class?" Summitt asked about Tennessee products staying home.

The answer would likely dip into the first half of Summitt's career at Tennessee – this is her 35th season – when recruiting targets were mostly regional. In 1991-92, there were seven Tennesseans on the roster. By 1995-96, the number had shrunk to four. By 1998-99 there were three, but two were walk-ons.

Johnson is the first Knoxville resident to play at Tennessee since Tanika Smith in 1993-94. Next season she will be joined by Dupree, marking the first time since 1983-84 that two players from Knoxville played for Summitt. Kristie Snyder and Pat Hatmaker were the last pair.

Dupree is a versatile post player who projects to play power forward and center in college.

"I had watched Faith, and she came to our camps," Summitt said. "She's gotten so much better."

Summitt said she extended an offer to Dupree after camp this past June.

"I was pretty sure going into it, but I wanted to wait until she came to camp and also have time to talk to her parents and let them know we wanted to make an offer," Summitt said. "I think she is much more aggressive. She is physically making more contact in her post-up game and in her face-up game she's shooting the ball well. I think her offensive skills are where she's gotten better. She can face up. She's got a really nice shooting touch."

Spani projects to shooting guard and small forward in college because of her range from behind the arc, which extends well past the line. Spani seemed like a long shot for the Lady Vols because her older sister, Shalin Spani, plays basketball at Kansas State and their father, Gary Spani, was an All-American football player for the Wildcats.

"I had heard an awful lot about her," Summitt said. "I think most people thought she would probably go to K-State because her sister was there and her dad went there. They came in and visited us unofficially and I thought we had a great visit then and then came back on an official. I think when they came here I think she right off fit with our team. She got to visit with them. I think they were all comfortable with our coaching staff and our team.

"She got to go over to Pratt and obviously to see the facilities I think she knew this would be the biggest stage for her to be on. That's appealing to play in front of a lot of fans and play the schedule that we play. She wants that. She's a fierce competitor and a winner. Bottom line, she wants to play for championships. Hopefully she can help us win a few."

Summitt scouted Spani in AAU competition in Portland, Ore, and Augusta, Ga.

"I watched her play. There is no doubt she's a player," Summitt said. "She's got deep three range. She'll be a great addition to give us a long-range three-point shooter. The one thing that impressed me is she's playing off the bounce a lot better and taking the ball to the hole more. She's got really good people skills. She's vocal. I like her communication, not only with her coaches but with her teammates.

"She's strong. She's definitely got a toughness about her game, just her mentality. She's physically tough and mentally tough."

Spani, who has four sisters, has been home-schooled, a first for Summitt, who wasn't worried about having to explain her mandatory class attendance policy.

"I don't think with her that will be an issue," Summitt said with a laugh. "She's a very good student. They're a great family. They're all so supportive of each other. That's a big step for someone. Five daughters, and they've all been right there together."

Williams, the third member of the class, is a lefty combo guard who can shoot and handle the ball. She projects to wing and point guard in college.

"She's a very talented guard," Summitt said. "She can shoot the three, she's got a strong body, she can go coast to coast, she's got a good pull-up game, tough defender. I think her dad had a strong influence on her game and working with her. I went and watched her in Clarksville the last two years."

Williams comes from a military family and her training was on display when she made an unofficial visit to Tennessee a year ago. When Summitt walked on the court Williams stood up to greet her and shake her hand in a display of formal manners that is no longer common.

"They've got some discipline in that household," Summitt said.

The three signees will give Tennessee a roster of 14 next season, a large number by Summitt's standards. That will leave her only one scholarship for the class of 2010 – Memphis point guard Lauren Avant has already verbally committed, but Summitt can't discuss her until she officially signs in a year – so that will take the roster to the scholarship limit of 15.

"It just worked out that way. It was not necessarily by design," Summitt said. "First of all I had no reason to think everyone was going to say yes (in the class of 2008, which brought six to campus).

"And then when I started recruiting the next class I thought we had a good shot at Kamiko, and she made an early commitment. We were obviously very interested in Faith and Taber. I thought we would (get Faith) but Kentucky was after her and she visited two or three different places so I wasn't sure. Taber you could say she was a long shot for us because of Kansas State and her sister was there. I didn't know. I wanted at least two in this class."

The staff ended up with three and fulfilled every need. Once again, Summitt recruited players that can be slotted into multiple positions.

"That will give us some versatility," Summitt said. "I think players are developing all-around games. I think that comes from coaching. I think they're getting better instruction and they're working harder on their skill development. It's more competitive."

So is recruiting. And, once again, Tennessee hauled in a stellar class.

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