Taber Spani ready to wear orange

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – When Taber Spani was a sophomore in high school the interest from colleges seemed to expand daily, but there were two notable exceptions, namely Tennessee and Connecticut. When the sharpshooter told her father she wanted to play for the best his reply was blunt: "The best is not recruiting you." Her reply was a harbinger of what was to come: "If I'm good enough, they'll find me."

Tennessee definitely found Taber Spani, and she will enroll in summer school in June to get ready for her fall semester as a freshman for the Lady Vols basketball program. She has a number selected already – 13 – and a declared major – sports management.

"I felt like it was perfect for me, where the Lord wanted me to go," Spani said. "It was awesome. I like to say I have high expectations for myself but that's Tennessee. Every year they strive to win championships and I'm really excited about that. That's part of the reason why I chose to go there and to be under Coach Summitt's tutelage."

Her father, Gary Spani, an All-American linebacker for Kansas State who went on to have an outstanding pro career with the Kansas City Chiefs, knew firsthand what it took to play at the highest level. He and his wife, Stacey Spani, were also very familiar with the recruiting process. Their oldest daughter, Shalin Spani, plays for Kansas State and will be a junior guard next fall when Taber begins her career at Tennessee.

So when it became apparent that Taber – she is the second of five children, all daughters – had Division I talent, the Spanis got ready for another recruiting process. That meant researching the schools and determining what Taber wanted.

"Obviously with Shalin we had the opportunity to walk through it once," Gary Spani said. "She gave us her parameters and then we walked it out for her. Same thing with Taber. We wanted to know what she thought and then help her walk that out."

Kansas State was a natural fit because of the proximity to home in Lee's Summit, Mo., her father's significant ties to the school and her sister's presence on the basketball roster. But Taber was curious about her ability to compete at the sport's highest level and that has historically been Tennessee and Connecticut, which share 14 national titles among them – eight for the Lady Vols and six for the Huskies.

"For her Kansas State was obviously a draw and a big draw," Gary Spani said. "In fact it was such a draw that it kind of helped us in some ways (narrow the field) because she told all the other Big 12 schools right away that she wasn't going to compete against her sister. So now it was, ‘Taber, tell me your big picture of what you want to do.' For her it was finding the right spot for her to give her the best opportunity to do what she does with the best people around her and against the best people.

"We quickly realized that's kind of a short list. What was interesting was this was a talk we had in the spring (before her junior year) and everybody in the country had been talking to her except for UConn and Tennessee. They had not seen her. So when she said, ‘I want to look at the best,' I said, ‘Well the best is not recruiting you.' I said, ‘Do you want me to send film? Do you want me to talk to them?'

"She said, ‘No, if I'm good enough they'll find me.' Sure enough they found her."

Stacey Spani remembers the summer event in which her daughter were first seen by Tennessee because of who was on an opposing team – rising Lady Vol sophomore Glory Johnson and incoming freshman Kamiko Williams. Two Lady Vol assistants were at the AAU national event in Orlando to watch Johnson and Williams and saw Spani raining threes against the Tennessee Pride.

"Taber had 30 (points)," Stacey Spani said. "She just had a great game. From that point on UConn and Tennessee were recruiting her."

Taber and her parents took unofficial visits to Connecticut in March of 2008 and then to Tennessee three months later in June. Taber was ready to commit to the Lady Vols after that trip but wanted to return for an official visit in the fall so that she could meet her future teammates.

When her parents were asked what tipped the scale to Tennessee they answered simultaneously, "Pat Summitt."

"Really, it's Coach Summitt," Taber Spani said when asked the same question after the 2009 WBCA High School All-America game in St. Louis. "And it's what she stands for. And it's the tradition of Tennessee. And it's winning championships. I want to go in, and we want to win championships. That would be awesome if we could get Coach Summitt to tie or break John Wooden's record. I would love that."

That coach sees a lot of herself in Taber Spani in what could rank as one of Summitt's biggest compliments ever for a player.

"I like her game," Summitt said. "I like her as a person – her character, her work ethic, her focus. We are cut out of the same cloth for the most part – our focus and our drive and our competitiveness. She hates to lose, and that's what we need. We need kids that just absolutely refuse to lose."

Taber, who just turned 18 last January, is aware of Wooden's place in the game – the UCLA coaching legend won 10 national championships – because of her maternal grandfather, a legend in his own right.

Frosty Westering was a four-time national champion winner in football at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. – once as NCAA Division III in 1999 and three times as NAIA Division II in 1980, 1987 and 1993. His teams made the playoffs 11 additional times, and he never had a losing season at PLU.

Westering and his wife stopped by practice last January to speak to the Lady Vol basketball team – the Westerings and another couple had been in Nashville for the American Football Coaches Association convention – and Ralph Weekly, the co-head softball coach at Tennessee with his wife, Karen Weekly, had been an assistant for Westering from 1987 to 1993 in the fall while coaching softball in the spring. Westering made a side trip to Knoxville to see the Weeklys and to meet Summitt, her staff and the team.

Taber is close to her grandparents and especially took to the teaching of Westering.

"My dad is obviously a legendary coach," Stacey Spani said. "He's been a very special part of our kids' lives. He has a doctorate in coaching psychology, and he's developed the ‘inner game of an athlete.' He has spent time with Taber ever since she was 3 on up of understanding the mental toughness of an athlete and how to close the gap of your potential.

"She's very different in being schooled in all that, and it's been a very special relationship that she's had with her grandfather."

It was from her grandfather that Taber learned of Wooden, who had an impact on Westering.

"He was a big role model for him," said Taber, whose lessons from her grandfather still resonate. "It taught me mental toughness. You've got to be positive no matter what. Basketball is a very quick game so you're going to make mistakes but like my grandfather said, ‘You've got to flush them and you've got to move on. It's the next play.'

"All of his philosophies and all of his techniques of winning and doing it the right way and playing with class but having fun as well and being the ultimate competitor I think it really rubbed off on me."

Taber's competitive drive definitely comes from both sides of her family. Her father was known for his toughness on the football field – he is the all-time leading tackler for the Chiefs with 999 – and her mother, besides being the daughter of Westering, played basketball and volleyball.

"There is a lot of competitiveness on both sides of the family," Stacey Spani said.

"She got it from both sides of the family," Gary Spani agreed. "Absolutely."

"My dad, when he gets on the court, the intensity just blows out," Taber said. "He's that ultimate competitor and tough, tough, tough. My mom is so intense. I'm just so glad I got those genes passed down."

Gary Spani is in the Chiefs Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, and Taber watched both inductions as a child.

"I saw her eyes and the intensity of understanding what it took," Stacey Spani said.

That helps explain Taber's remarks of helping Summitt tie or overtake Wooden. It is stated matter of factly without a hint of boastfulness. It's a bold statement for a high school senior, but it's also why Taber selected Tennessee over the 130 other schools that expressed interest.

"Taber was recruited by 130 colleges," Stacey Spani said. "When those two came into play (Tennessee and Connecticut) we knew what a champion's heart Taber had."

Her parents also made it clear that the decision belonged to Taber. Gary Spani's ties to Kansas State and the Kansas City Chiefs are entrenched. It was enticing to Taber to stay within that realm of familiarity.

"We just wanted to nurture it, but obviously athletics is a big part of our lives," Gary Spani said. "I still work for the Chiefs. She's been around it all her life."

When Taber picked Tennessee, was the family at peace?

"Absolutely," Stacey Spani said. "Obviously emotionally we had to lay it down because of the connection to K-State and Shalin and Gary's name with the Chiefs and that whole area.

"We had made the ground rules for our daughters: Wherever it is you better know that you know that you know that's where you're called to go. Because when the good times come and the tough times come and you call us, we're going to say, ‘You know you're supposed to be there.' Because we're not ones that wave on emotion. Our girls are thermostats. They're not thermometers. They really have learned to understand working through hard times."

Taber just smiled when told of her mother's remarks. She knows she can call home for comfort from college, but she also knows that she shouldn't expect sympathy when the inevitable tough times come after three-hour practice sessions with Summitt followed by Heather Mason weight workouts and 5 a.m. wakeup calls for conditioning and then class and mandatory study hall.

"I didn't make a quick decision," Taber said. "I wanted to make sure that Tennessee was the place for me. I had that feeling the whole summer, but I wanted to meet the players. When something happens – because things are going to happen in college and there are going to be tough times and there are going to be low times – but when I call home I'm going to know that Tennessee is the place for me.

"I think for any freshman it's an adjustment but with my sister going to Kansas State I got to watch her and watch the adjustment that she made and it's really helped me so I am looking forward to that opportunity. They'll be freshmen nerves but I like that. Home schooling has really prepared me. You've got to be self-disciplined, you've got to have your priorities straight, you've got to use your time wisely and you've got to have that self-starter mentality. It's all about that in college. I feel prepared and I am really looking forward to getting there."

Taber will be the first home-schooled student-athlete to play for Summitt and she just laughed when she was jokingly asked if she would go to class. Summitt's rules for class attendance are well known – miss a class, miss a game.

The Spanis believe their daughter's lessons in time management will help her at the next academic level.

"If they want to get something done early they know it's in their hands to get it done so they control their day so it's like a college campus," Gary Spani said. "Shalin has been an academic All-American at Kansas State and has done great so that transition academically was really easy."

A typical day for Taber was to get up at 5 a.m., go to practice, return home for a shower, go through a 3.5-hour school day on DVD followed by two hours of homework and then return to the gym.

"For us as a family we chose it because we wanted to have a Christian curriculum and it says in the Bible you are to impart the word of God into your children's lives, and we took that very seriously as parents," Stacey Spani said. "I am from a family of public educators so we're not against public schools or private schools. It was just the right fit for our family.

"I taught her curriculum until the eighth grade and then we transferred it over to what is a DVD format. She does three-and-a-half hours of lecture with doctorate and master's teachers and then she does two hours of homework. It's a very disciplined day."

The Spanis also gave Taber and their other daughters the option every year of opting out of home schooling.

"We made one-year decisions, and she embraced it," Stacey Spani said. "It's an intense commitment. The wonderful thing is that's what our whole goal was – to provide a foundation of choice for our kids. We really believe that life is all about choices and if kids don't know how to choose … every single day everything in front of them is a choice and not doing anything is a choice and so from the very beginning in our lives with our kids we have looked them in the eye and said, ‘What are you choosing?'

"Taber has had that foundation – who she wants to spend her time with, what she likes to do and the time management and the discipline and the focus."

Before Taber made her final choice of picking Tennessee she made a visit in September with Lady Vol commitments Faith Dupree and Williams to get to know them better and to also meet her teammates. With just one senior on the 2008-09 team, Taber would be joining in 2009-10 nearly everyone she met. She made an instant connection with Angie Bjorklund – the two are similar in size and skill, and they also are Christians who use basketball as a platform to talk about their faith.

"She knows Angie is a Christian, which is awesome," Stacey Spani said. "They got to know each other better on her official visit."

They share a Bible verse – Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ which strengthen me – which Angie has written on her shoes and which Taber has inscribed on a headband.

"Taber's Bible verse stems from (Florida quarterback) Tim Tebow, because she sees him as a role model for her as an intense competitor, leader, obviously extremely talented, a home-schooler and he's willing to share his faith, and he's willing to influence people with his platform," Stacey Spani said.

Summitt has noted another similarity between Angie and Taber – work ethic and willingness to get in the gym.

"I roomed with her at official visit," Taber said. "I've had some correspondence with her. She is obviously a hard worker."

Summitt noted after the 2008-09 season, which ended with a disappointing 22-11 record and unprecedented first round loss in the NCAA tourney, that sophomores Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone were the ones who got in extra shots on their own in Pratt. They should expect a shooting buddy this summer.

"The thing that has made Taber great is her willingness to work on her weaknesses," Stacey Spani said. "A lot of kids concentrate on their strengths. She wants to attack her weaknesses, and she so loves to learn. She watches tape. She'll spend hours in the gym. She's relentless at perfecting something that she's after. It will be a wonderful thing to have another partner that's willing to do that."

"Definitely," Taber said. "Pratt is going to be seeing a lot of me. How much you put in is how much you get out of it. I just want to go in there, work my tail off and see what happens, but we've got to bring a big impact and a big work ethic. I'm all about that – dedication and you've got to put the work in.

"I'm really looking forward to it, especially this summer to really work with Heather Mason. I got to see a couple of their workouts and it just made me want to work out really bad. I loved it. I'm used to that intensity and I welcome it."

The more Taber talks the easier it is to see why Summitt wanted her signature on an LOI – Taber Spani will work on her game without being told, she looks forward to workouts with Mason and she is even anticipating Summitt yelling at her with a sense of eagerness.

"Obviously you're going to have to adjust to that because that is her way of doing things, and I love that," Taber said. "I'm excited about that and hopefully just embrace it and knowing that she's doing it because she loves us and she wants to get the best out of us. I talked to her before I committed. I was like I want to go somewhere where I know my potential will be maxed out and I know that that's what I'm going to get when I go to Tennessee, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Taber can turn to Bjorklund for support. Summitt wasn't inclined to shout much at Alex Fuller – the fifth-year fundamentally sound senior returned on two balky knees to help lead a young team and has always been the type of player who gets the job done efficiently without drawing a coach's ire – so Bjorklund was the recipient of much of Summitt's intense instruction this past season. She handled it with aplomb, and both coach and player knew what they were doing – Bjorklund set the example for the freshmen of how to react to Summitt. Her message got through to them with Bjorklund as the conduit who could handle the heat.

Taber seems ready to lighten the load on Bjorklund. It is the players with the ability to be special that Summitt will seek the most from – Johnson also got an earful this past season – and thus those are also the ones that the coach will challenge the most. Summitt has already said that Taber has the chance to be a special college basketball player.

"I love her because she challenges her kids," Taber said. "I expect to be the hardest worker on the team. I like that she expects that I would be special because it drives me. I don't think it's extra pressure because I put pressure on myself. I am looking forward to it."

The WBCA game at Washington University Field House on April 4 was typical in some ways of all-star games – for the record the Blue team prevailed over the White team, 79-77 – in that a lot of shots were lofted. The White team was 30-96 from the field, while the Blue team was 30-79. Taber, who played for the Blue squad, was 3-8 – 3-6 from long range – and had 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal.

Summitt was in attendance at the game and sat on a bleacher seat surrounded by her entire staff.

"Yes, I saw her," Taber said. "It's awesome. I love playing in front of her. It really means a lot and I know how busy they are and how much they're excited about this incoming class and their players and their team next year. We want to get those championships for her and her staff and for ourselves."

Summitt likely noticed Taber's behavior off the ball in the ways that don't show up in a box score. When a player came to the bench Taber was the first one to stand up to greet her. She extended a hand to help a player off the floor, encouraged her teammates, applauded good plays and talked on defense.

"My grandfather taught me that," Taber said. "My parents have instilled that in me. You've got to be a team player. If you wanted to play an individual sport, then you go do that. If you're in a team sport you've got to give yourself away.

"I think it's my responsibility to make sure everybody is doing their part and everybody is encouraging one another. It just comes out of me. You have to make sure everyone is involved and everyone is giving 100 percent at all times and you've got to pick your teammates up. It's in me. It just comes out."

Taber also is inclined to lead a team and although she emphasized that any freshman has to come in and learn she also wants to set an early example.

"I think it's in me," Taber said. "I think I'm a natural leader. I love to lead teams. Coming in and talking and being loud and being a leader is natural for me. Even though I am young I don't think that makes that much of a difference. Obviously the experience comes with time but I'm looking forward to doing whatever I can as a freshman."

Taber, a 6'1 shooting guard, is part of a class of three from 2009, which includes Williams, a 5'10 combo guard, and Dupree, a 6'3 forward. The three have been in touch with each other.

"I think they're blue collar hard workers," Taber said. "I think this class coming in wants to do whatever we can to help the team and make an impact and help lead this team back to championships. I don't know what that impact is going to look like, but we're going to work our tails off to have as big an impact as we can."

All three will attend summer school in June so as to join their new teammates as soon as possible.

"I think it's a big advantage for us three freshmen coming in and getting to work with the sophomores and the upperclassmen just to bond," Taber said. "I know how hard they're working right now so just to become as much of a team, one team with one purpose. We've got to get back to winning those championships, and I think that's what Tennessee is all about. I think that will be key, coming in, and that will really help us."

It becomes very clear in a conversation with Taber, even a short one after the WBCA game in a small room crowded with players and media, that she decided to come to Tennessee to cut down nets.

"She's a very confident, self-assured individual, much more focused and disciplined than most kids coming out of high school," Summitt said. "She knows what she wants."

The fact she is willing to work hard to achieve that has already endeared her to Summitt, especially after a season in which the coach criticized a lot of her players for not dedicating themselves to basketball.

Spani's presence in St. Louis and her selection as a McDonald's All-American are well-deserved accolades, but her father said Taber would try to set herself apart with her work ethic.

"You realize the work that all these girls put into it," Gary Spani said. "We talked about this on the way down. She was willing to work on things that she wasn't very good at and still is. There are going to be lots of things to work on obviously."

"I think this whole week, going from McDonald's to this game, it taught me a lot," Taber said. "It was a honor. To play with the best players in the country is what I strive for, to play against the best and with the best and ultimately for the best.

"These girls are very talented and you've got to use your strengths and it exposes your weaknesses. I think my strengths are shooting and being smart and hopefully a playmaker out there and using my savvy and my leadership. Obviously I'm not the quickest kid so I'm going to have to be smarter and work harder and cut people off and be lower (on defense). I think the little things get exposed."

Taber, who was also a standout soccer player before deciding to focus on basketball, has been coached by her parents. They were both tough on her, and they both know they can't match Summitt's stare.

"She comes with a heart that already has an expectation of excellence in herself and we're pretty tough on her in terms of the way we coach her," Stacey said. "It's going to be completely different hearing it from Pat obviously."

"But if it's true, she'll be, ‘OK, I know I'm not very good at that.' And then she'll spend time getting better at it," Gary Spani said.

Summitt's coaching style is not a secret. She has two books on the shelves, an HBO documentary, thorough media coverage in print, broadcast and Internet and has worn a microphone on the sidelines, in the locker room and at practice for television.

Taber is ready to join that long orange line that traces back to Summitt, who will be entering her 36th year at Tennessee.

"It's special," Taber said. "I don't think you can grasp it until you're in the program, until you're day to day in practice. Coach Summitt is special. I don't know if I've met anyone like her before. She's the John Wooden of women's basketball and to be coached under a legend is one of the greatest opportunities I think you could ever have. I want to get every drop that she has for me and just soak it up. I want to be a sponge coming in and learn as much as I can."

Taber also needs to be ready to compete for playing time. Summitt has said that if Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh are healthy they will start inside, and Bjorklund will start outside. The other two starting positions are up for grabs, and the freshmen will enter the mix for minutes from day one.

"I am looking forward to it," Taber said. "It's a challenge. It's all about making an impact. Obviously that door is open and probably more open than in previous years and so it's exciting for me and it's exciting for the freshmen coming in. If we can just come in and help the team, make an impact and lead them back to Final Fours, that's what we want to do. It's exciting, and I'm looking forward to it."

Taber watched the 71-55 loss to Ball State and felt empathy for her soon-to-be teammates and coaching staff. She also wants Tennessee to steer back on course. It was the first time the Lady Vols had lost in the first round in the history of the women's NCAA tourney, which began in 1982.

"It was tough, especially knowing Coach Summitt and how competitive and how much of a winner she is," Taber said. "That's what drew me to Tennessee, so to watch that happen and not the right kind of history for the Lady Vols, it was tough. It also put a fire under me, and I'm sure all the players want to make sure that never happens again."

The Spanis sat in the stands in St. Louis – Summitt spoke to them at halftime and was immediately approached by autograph seekers sitting nearby so she signed and talked and posed for photos – and watched Taber officially conclude her high school career. They will turn over their second daughter to Summitt in June and trust that the foundation has been set for success on the court and in college.

"I think Taber is in for an amazing experience to be part of the Lady Vols and our hope is that they're in for an amazing experience having her as part of them," Stacey Spani said.

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