Lady Vols shift mindset

Ever since the Lady Vols began workouts following the loss in the first round of the NCAA tourney Angie Bjorklund has embraced the sessions and encouraged her teammates to do the same. As a rising junior for Tennessee, the shooting guard also has wrapped herself around another concept – that of team leader.

"Definitely," Angie Bjorklund said. "I hope that they will look to me as a leader, and I am definitely taking that role."

Bjorklund is still wrapping her mind around how the season ended. She went from winning a national title against Stanford as a freshman to losing in the first round to Ball State as a sophomore. It was the Lady Vols first loss in the first round in the tournament's 28-year history.

"I have seen it all. I've seen the best. I've seen the worst," Bjorklund said, channeling Charles Dickens. "It's been one crazy experience both years. You can't get any more extreme. I've learned so much from it, though, from the first year, even more this year. I'm just going to take it and go on."

For that reason Bjorklund was happy to get back in the gym. Tennessee started team workouts last week and spends two hours on the court and six with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach.

"It's huge," Bjorklund said. "No other team is working out right now … not this hard. I can guarantee that. If we put in our best effort now and mentally get tougher and physically get tougher it's going to definitely pay off in the future."

Mason has the team for three days a week – they return to the Gate 10 ramp at Neyland Stadium on Wednesday – and she has devised an assortment of workouts, including pushing grocery carts loaded with weights across a football field.

"She's doing a lot of sprinting and then she's doing a lot of defensive slide stuff," Pat Summitt said. "I think we're getting our hips lower – that's been something we struggled with, particularly our post game – and obviously working on the stance so we're not opening up our stance, and keeping people in front. They're doing slide drills and sprint drills. They've done the carts, doing a lot of abs work. They've done a good variety.

"Our inside people, we haven't done a great job of really loading our hips. She's working a lot on technique with that so we can be more explosive."

Bjorklund, fellow sophomore Sydney Smallbone and freshman Alicia Manning decided to get the team to meet as a group with Dr. Joe Whitney, the director of mental training for the Lady Vols. Bjorklund said she sees him on a regular basis for visualization techniques and Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine who created Team Enhance, which addresses the physical and mental needs of athletes, mentioned to Bjorklund that it could be beneficial for the entire team to hold a session together.

"We came together as a team and said, ‘We need to get our mindset right,' " Bjorklund said. "We've all met with him on the side. I see him on a regular basis just to get my mental shooting and that kind of thing. He helps me out a lot. We all got together and decided to meet as a team because we thought it would benefit getting our mindset right."

The team meeting took place Tuesday after the court workout, and the purpose was to shift the players' point of view from enduring the workouts to embracing them.

"That's what we talked about up there from changing our mindset of ‘we need to get through this' to ‘this can be an advantage for us,' " Bjorklund said. "Having the time where they can kill us however many days in a row, and we need to create that habit of becoming tougher players mentally and physically.

"I don't think we need to look at is as punishment, and I've tried to make that as clear as possible that this is the time to get better. We've gotten together and talked about it."

Briana Bass had a change of mindset handwritten on her white T-shirt that had "no more" across it three times on the front and back.

"I asked her, I just said, ‘Why do you have that on?' " Summitt said. "And she said, ‘I don't want to lose anymore. No more losses. We're sick of losing.' I like the fact that right now she's focused on what she needs to do."

Of course, Summitt followed up that conversation by suggesting that Bass ratchet up her defense in order to help prevent a loss.

"Her defense has got to get better," Summitt said. "You can't have a player that size if they're not really up defending with toughness."

Summitt has noted that the same can be said of all the freshmen, and Tuesday's session was focused on defense as players rotated from one assistant coach to the other to work on all aspects of guarding an opponent from denying the pass to switching to help.

"It's not just getting in a stance," Summitt said. "It's seeing ball, man, fighting through screens, back screens, down screens, ball screens. There's just so much thrown at these players. How many of them stood in a zone in high school? I've always said that's a four-letter word in my book.

"You're trying to get them to understand it and then be able to do it in a competitive way but also with the knowledge of, ‘What do I do when I'm in the help-side and there's a down screen, a back screen, a cross screen.' There's a lot of action you have to defend if you are a man-to-man team. If and when you get it – if you get it – it's tough to beat it."

The results were mixed when the drills segued into five-on-five work, but Summitt said the team does have the time now to commit to repetitions.

We're having to teach and re-teach a lot," Summitt said. "We've got time. We're not playing this weekend."

Summitt didn't seem frustrated that she was re-teaching concepts that were first put into place last October, as she seemed to recognize the immutable sequence of a calendar – freshmen need at least a year in her defensive system to absorb it.

"It's very telling the number of players that did not come in with a good low body, position, stance, high hands," Summitt said.

That means breaking all of those players of bad habits – or in this case, no habits, on defense.

Bjorklund, a solid perimeter defender who plays position defense, stays low and moves her feet to cut off angles, understands the process. Former Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle was at the session Tuesday and offered tips on defense to Bass during one drill. Bjorklund remembers when she needed those tips from Hornbuckle.

"I think it's just breaking habits," Bjorklund said. "I remember her telling me the same thing over and over again. I remember Coach saying, ‘You're a shooter. You need to shoot when you're open.' I think it's just coming in and creating new habits. It gets uncomfortable at first, but you have to work through that and make the changes you need to make. That's how you get better."

The presence of Hornbuckle on the floor is an eye-opener for the freshmen. She took several to school on back-door cuts without the ball and knifed to the basket with the ball. She rebounded with her usual tenacity. It also underscores how much such examples were missed all season. With just one senior on the roster and no juniors, the six true freshmen didn't see daily displays at each position of how far they had to go on the court.

"The majority of these players came here thinking it was going to be easy," Summitt said. "We didn't have enough good examples."

The team will still be very young next season – three freshmen will join the six sophomores, one redshirt sophomore and three juniors – but they will assemble together in June. All three signees, guards Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani and forward Faith Dupree will enroll in the first session of summer school.

"I think our whole team will be here first session," Bjorklund said.

Dupree, who is from Knoxville, and Williams, who is from Clarksville, Tenn., have told Summitt that they intend to attend both sessions, while some players, like Bjorklund, who is from Spokane Valley, Wash., and rarely sees her family, need to slip home for a few weeks in July.

"I need that break, come home and spend time with my family (though) I have kind of created my own little family here," said Bjorklund, who attends a local church.

Cait McMahan, whose season ended in January because of chronically bad knees, is likely to return next season as a student assistant coach – she will remain on scholarship – and has been attending the court sessions for the past week. But her change in status from player to coach will free up an athletic scholarship, and Summitt said she is likely to use it for the class of 2010, which has been a class of one – point guard Lauren Avant of Memphis who has verbally committed to Tennessee.

Summitt can't comment on Avant or any other specific player from the class until an LOI is signed next fall, but she is allowed by NCAA rules to discuss numbers and general info about recruiting in terms of what type of player she is seeking.

"Probably a combo guard, defense, quickness, skill," Summitt said. "There're some good players out there."

With 10 returning players having told Summitt that they intend to stay at Tennessee, the coaching staff doesn't plan to sign any players from the juco ranks. There will be 13 on the roster next season for 2009-10 with no seniors. That allows a maximum of two players to be signed from the class of 2010 for a roster of 15 in 2010-11.

"I am excited about Kamiko coming in and what she's going to add and Taber," said Summitt, adding that Dupree can contribute her first year if she commits to conditioning early in the process.

Tennessee is down one player this week in the workout sessions. Freshman forward Amber Gray is getting treated for a shoulder injury she sustained last week and is being held out by Moshak

"Jenny said she would let me know in a couple of days where she was and what the plan was," Summitt said.

In the meantime, the seven available players – Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain are rehabbing their knees and are exempt from the workouts – will continue their sessions with Mason, who has been charged with changing bodies and minds.

"Overall with what they're going through I think already mentally some of them are tougher," Summitt said.


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