Lady Vols begin workouts

Angie Bjorklund and Briana Bass, two players the coaches expect to step into leadership roles this season, seemed ready to take the challenge. Both had productive off-seasons – Bjorklund was healthy all summer; Bass worked out daily with her father – and both expressed a desire to get this season started.

Angie Bjorklund was in the first group on the Pratt Pavilion court with fellow long-range shooters Shekinna Stricklen and Taber Spani as individual workouts got underway Thursday. Briana Bass was in the third group of the afternoon with Sydney Smallbone, Alicia Manning and Kamiko Williams. The middle group consisted of post players Alyssia Brewer, Glory Johnson and Faith Dupree.

Vicki Baugh is being held out of workouts while she rehabs her left knee after having ACL surgery last March, and Kelley Cain sustained a concussion unrelated to basketball and was held out for medical reasons. Cain, who underwent knee surgery last April, would have been cleared to participate otherwise and is expected to be OK.

The players received their allotment of practice gear – they all were carrying new socks and adidas clothes – and are no longer responsible for washing the practice clothes.

"They got their gear. We're washing their clothes," Pat Summitt said.

But the locker room remains off-limits for now.

"We're not even talking about that," Summitt said. "It's way too early. I think they want to make sure that they earn it back. I don't think they want anything given to them."

Last year's team – and 10 of those players are on the roster this season – lost access to the locker room and their official Tennessee practice clothes after a lackluster loss at Kentucky in February. Summitt said last May that she would evaluate how they reported back for the fall semester before returning some of the privileges.

The matching clothes at Thursday's workouts – the players are allowed to work on the court with the coaches for two hours a week in groups of up to four – indicated Summitt was incrementally pleased so far.

Bjorklund and Bass said the team reported to Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, on Thursday morning and recorded excellent results.

"Everybody has been working their butt off," Bass said. "Coach D (Daedra Charles-Furlow) just showed us – we did a workout this morning – our times and we have so much improved, even that team when Candace (Parker) and (Shannon) Bobbitt were there, we have improved over them, and we still have two months of conditioning."

Summitt said if the season started today, Bass, the 5'2 sophomore from Indianapolis, would be her starting point guard. If that remains the case for the season opener in November, an assist needs to be credited to her father, Tim Bass.

"Me and my dad every day, once he got off work, we would work out," Bass said. "I would get up in the morning and I would do cardio and lifting and that afternoon, right when he got off work we were in the gym working, shooting, dribbling, everything."

Bass remained in Knoxville for the first session of summer school – the entire team did – but she went home in May right after the spring semester ended for a few weeks and then again in the latter part of the summer before the fall semester began.

"I know that I need to be a leader out here on the court and I know that I need to get my volume up," Bass said. "That's something that me and my dad have actually worked on. We worked on trying to take charges because I know I need to work on that. We worked on my volume getting up louder. We worked on everything."

With the ball in her hand Bass adapted well as a freshman, but she struggled on defense, especially with keeping players in front of her. She was noticeably improved in that area Thursday and got a high-five from Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick after a series of defensive repetitions in which she stayed low and cut off the driving angles to the basket.

Several players went home for the second session of summer school – for ones like Bjorklund, a 6'0 guard/forward who lives in Spokane, Wash., it's the last chance to visit until Christmas. Bjorklund, who on Thursday was one of 31 frontrunners named to the preseason Wooden Award list, also had a productive summer because she was healthy. She missed a portion of time to work out last summer – and was only briefly able to go home – because she needed surgery to repair a meniscus tear in her knee.

"I really enjoyed my stay at home," Bjorklund said. "Last year I had the meniscus. I didn't have much time home. It's good to get some family time in, but I was ready to get back here and go to work with my team."

It showed as Bjorklund reported in excellent shape and was draining shots – both midrange and behind the arc – in the offensive drills.

"Just having the whole team there for the first session of summer school I think was huge," Bjorklund said. "Every single person got to work out with the team and not one person missed a workout all summer first session and then about half of us went home. I tried to get in the gym as much as possible. I took a little vacation here and there but even on vacation I tried to do a little something every day.

"We got a lot done, and I know people went to work when they went home because our conditioning tests that we did this morning it tells that we did. We've been working."

Spani, a 6'1 guard from Lee's Summit, Mo., was the first to hit the floor in a scramble for a loose ball as she tumbled over Stricklen and popped up as the ball squirted free to secure possession.

"She is such a strong person," Bjorklund said. "She is here to win. She is here to work. You can tell from every little thing she does. She's ahead of the ballgame as a freshman. She has really impressed me so far."

The trio of Stricklen, Bjorklund and Spani in the first session showed the firepower that the Lady Vols have from long range, but the emphasis was defense for much of their hour on the court as the coaches went over positioning – Bjorklund is already accomplished in that aspect – and footwork. Stricklen's on-ball defense could be porous last season, and Spani, like all college freshmen, will learn from scratch.

Bjorklund will be asked to lead this season, as she is the most-experienced junior on a team with no seniors.

"Oh, definitely, without a doubt," Bjorklund said. "I think all the juniors have really stepped up – Syd and Vick and Kel. Even with Vick and Kel just getting their knees back they've been great leaders."

Cain is a redshirt sophomore, but this is her third year at Tennessee, and she identifies with her class. Baugh is being held off the court so that she can continue to work in the weight room.

"I think with Vicki we still want to get the quad bigger," Summitt said.

With Baugh and Cain off the court for now, three post players are getting repetitions with the coaches – sophomores Johnson and Brewer and freshman Dupree. As with the guard sessions the early emphasis was on defense.

The freshmen, Spani, Dupree and Williams, were staggered in three different sessions, so they had returning players on the floor with them. That was in stark contrast to last season when Tennessee had six newcomers plus the redshirt Cain, and they often had to be grouped together.

"The upperclassmen, it's good to see them talking to the freshmen and trying to help them out so I am very pleased with that," Summitt said.

Tennessee has 13 players on the roster this season – three freshmen, six sophomores, one redshirt sophomore and three juniors. Cait McMahan, who would have been a redshirt junior, had to stop playing because of chronically sore knees. She has taken an administrative position in the Lady Vols office and won't be on the bench this season.

One of the second-year players, Amber Gray, remains in Ohio, where she is recovering from a stroke that occurred in July after surgery to repair her left shoulder. Gray had a hemorrhaging aneurysm and underwent 12.5 hours of brain surgery.

Gray won't enroll in school until January, but she said earlier this month that she plans to return to Knoxville this fall to visit. Gray had wanted to attend Summitt's gathering Monday at her house for the team, but Gray's mother, Tonya Carter, is advocating rest right now instead of traveling. Gray was just released last week from a rehab center.

"Amber is anxious to get back, and her mother is trying to slow her down a little bit," Summitt said. "Tonya is doing a great job."

Gray's medical ordeal had a profound impact on the Lady Vol program.

"I don't have any question that it had a powerful impact on all of us – on the staff, our players, the managers," said Summitt, who spoke at an event at KUB on Thursday before the workouts and "got emotional" when she was asked about Gray. "She's affected all of us. It puts life in perspective. If she hadn't had gone in for shoulder surgery she might not be living."

"Wow," said Bjorklund, who exhaled and shook her head when asked what effect Gray's ordeal had on her teammates. "It was crazy. I was really proud of our team for coming together right when it happened. Our whole team was there supporting her. We were in that room praying for her. We stayed there until they kicked us out. We just kept praying and praying, and God definitely answered our prayers.

"It made my problems this big," added Bjorklund, who held her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart. "You just can't take things for granted. You've got to thank God every day for what you have because you never know what can come your way."

Bass said the team got a dose of perspective that went beyond basketball.

"I think that it really brought us closer as a team, honestly and truly, I think it brought us closer because with that experience happening we know that life can be over just like that," Bass said.

The returning players have taken the three newcomers under their wing with Bjorklund helping Spani, Johnson reuniting with Dupree, a former high school teammate at Webb, and the guards helping Williams, especially Bass.

"I think she's going to be real good," Bass said. "Everybody is teaching her – her, Taber and Faith. We are all trying to help them out, because everybody on this team is on a mission this year to win a national championship."

"I think me and Taber connected really well on our recruiting visit and we kind of kept in touch," Bjorklund said. "I was helping her out a little bit from the start. She knows if she needs me she can call me up to go and shoot whenever possible."

Bass and Manning – two players Summitt singled out last week for having excellent off-seasons – were solid on the first day of workouts with Manning showing a considerably more-consistent outside shot, especially from long range. She also held her own in the defensive drills.

"They both look good," Summitt said.

Although it's very early in the preseason, Bass seems to be anxious to prove correct the old adage about freshmen – the best thing about them is that they become sophomores.

"I know what to expect," Bass said.

Summitt noticed that familiarity among all the returning players.

"It's a lot different because they know what to expect," Summitt said. "With the disappointment of how we ended our season it hit home with them just as it did with the coaches. Sometimes you think players don't care as much as the coaches care, but based on what I've seen here they seem a lot more invested and very focused and very determined."

Tennessee lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. It was a jolting end – and one that had been building all season as the Lady Vols struggled to stop other teams and recorded 11 losses.

"It sticks in the pit of my gut," Bass said.

"Good," Summitt said. "I wasn't alone."

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