Clean slate for Kelley Cain

For Kelley Cain it was a summer of "rehab, rehab, rehab, rehab." She missed one season to have her knee realigned and then spent her first year in a Tennessee uniform battling chronic pain as the screws from that surgery migrated out of the bone. Perhaps the third time will truly be the charm for the 6'6 center, but she has learned one lesson – she won't ever take basketball for granted.

"I just have to keep positive," Kelley Cain said after her workout with three other post players on Tuesday. "I am able to be on the court and it's not taken for granted so go all out."

That was a reference to the medical ordeal of sophomore forward Amber Gray, who will miss this season – she won't enroll in school until January – as she recovers from a stroke brought on from a brain aneurysm that was discovered when she went into the hospital last July for shoulder surgery. The players, who were all enrolled for first session of summer school, spent considerable time maintaining a vigil at St. Mary's Medical Center.

"It opened everybody's eyes," Cain said. "We were already a close team before, but that really brought us all together and showed how much we really care for each other and how much like sisters we are."

Cain, a redshirt sophomore, is reluctant to talk about her medical past – she prefers to just put it out of her mind and move forward – but she is hoping for a healthy season among all the post players. Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 power forward who would pair well with Cain inside, has not yet returned to the court as she comes back from a second surgery on her left knee from a torn ACL.

"I am really excited for all of us to be playing because when all of us are healthy we have a tall lineup in the post game, so all we have to do is stay strong and play our hardest," Cain said.

Cain was impressive in the 2007-08 preseason – she even played in two exhibition games – but in a practice after the second exhibition game her right kneecap sustained another subluxation, or partial dislocation. It had been a chronic problem for her, as she was born with a tilted kneecap, and it didn't track correctly in its groove.

She underwent season-ending surgery to realign the kneecap – it was a success – and then faced coming back in the 2008-09 season from a year off the basketball court. That comeback was hindered by two serious concussions and then the migration of the screws out of the bone below her kneecap, which caused tremendous pain and limited her playing time. Right before individual workouts started in late August, she sustained another concussion in a non-basketball injury, something she can laugh about now.

"No sense in worrying about it now," Cain said. "It's over, and I'm safe."

Cain underwent surgery last April to remove the loose screws and then began the process of getting back into basketball shape and getting used to what felt like a new knee. She was cleared last week to participate fully in the workouts.

So how is that knee now?

"It's working," Cain said. "Every now and then I might have pains, but it's not as bad as it used to be, so that's a plus. That confidence is coming back day by day. I'm not rushing into anything right now, so I am just taking it slowly."

Cain spent most of the summer in the weight room. It was a cautious approach – the same way Baugh's return has been handled – as the health of both players' knees is vital to the success of the post game this season.

"Rehab, rehab, rehab, rehab," Cain said. "As I got better with rehab I got to do a lot of cardio and elliptical so that helped. When school started I was able to run, and I am working back from that. I am getting there definitely."

Cain's approach now is to not ponder the past but instead look at what lies ahead. It's her way of thinking, whether it's her head or her knee or the loss to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney that ended Tennessee's season.

"There is no sense on dwelling on it now," Cain said. "What happened has happened. This is a brand new season. Our slate is clean. I don't think about it. I think about this season and us dominating as much as we can.

"Basically not worrying about my head or my knee, which seems to be the two things that I always hurt. When I'm on the court I forget about it. Unless somebody hits it."

That hasn't happened yet, and Cain hasn't played with that carefree attitude since her first workouts at Tennessee two years ago. She has removed the compression sleeve and kneepad from her leg.

Coach Pat Summitt gets reports from Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols, on the health of Cain and when asked if she likes what she has heard of late, the coach replied, "Very much so."

Summitt has been more of an observer for the last three workouts as her three assistants, Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow, have handled most of the on-court instruction in the group settings.

"This right here, to me, this is really great for them because they're learning the fundamentals, they're learning the language they need to speak," Summitt said. "They are understanding a lot of different concepts, whether it's close-outs or taking charges or supporting with help or whatever."

The team will hold one more day this week of individual workouts – the players are allowed two hours a week each of court time with the coaches in groups no larger than four until Sept. 15 – and then will take advantage of NCAA rules next week that allow the full team to work together for two hours a week until official practice begins a month later.

"We've got to piece it all together and make it a team game," Summitt said. "That will allow us to look at the defense, as well as start putting in things we want to do offensively. I'm excited about it."

Summitt has been more likely of late to spend one on one time with the players at the workouts, as she did with freshman Taber Spani in a conversation that made both of them smile.

Pat Summitt, left, chats with Taber Spani at her individual workout at Pratt Pavilion on Tuesday. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Spani has taken the court with various combinations of players in the individual workouts format and is looking forward to seeing the whole team on the floor.

"I love how they change groups so you're with different people at different times," Spani said. "We've really grown close as a team. Obviously the Amber situation everyone came real close. We spent a lot of time together in the off-season and now we like hanging together. (Next week) everyone can come together and work out. I am really looking forward to it. It's going to put all the pieces that we've built so far and start having it come together."

Spani attended the first session of summer school – she spent the second session playing for USA basketball in Thailand – and got to know her teammates.

"I think coming in the summer time really helped getting used to the players," Spani said.

But what she really looked forward to was time with the coaches. That had to wait until the fall semester started in late August.

"You can't prep yourself for being with the coaches, and I absolutely have loved every second of it," Spani said. "I've been waiting for a year to be able to work with the coaches. NCAA rules restrict all that until now so I love and just try to soak up every moment and try to be the ultimate sponge.

"Yes, we want to win championships, but right now it's about us getting better every day. If we waste an opportunity in one of these individuals it's going to hurt us down the road, so we're all trying to really focus and just get better every day."

Spani may turn out to be a freshman in age only. Her maturity – and well-developed offensive game – is apparent even in truncated workouts with just a few teammates on the floor.

"I sensed that when I first met her and her family, just being in the home and having them here on campus," Summitt said. "Very mature and very focused. She knows what she wants, and she knows what it takes. I think that's the reason she came here was to win championships, and she can be a big part of that."

Last April when Spani was interviewed at the WBCA All-American game she said she couldn't wait to get on campus so that she could work out in the summer under the tutelage of Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach. It was the first time anyone could remember a freshman actually anticipating the experience with glee instead of apprehension.

So how was it?

"It's been a blast," Spani said. "It really has. I love it. I am just a worker. I love working hard. We're conditioning right now. We're getting ready to transition into a little bit different (workouts structured for) on the court – we're kind of in that transition phase. You can make running competitive. You can make it fun. We've got a great strength coach. I think the best in the country. She really forces you to enjoy working out. That comes naturally for me, but for a lot of kids the worst part is the conditioning part; everything else is fun.

"But we've loved it and as a team we're doing great. We're pushing each other so much, and our times are just ridiculously fast right now. We've making the times, and we're loving it, and we're really capturing every moment. Obviously a team at Tennessee our goal is national championship but right now our mindset has to be get better every day, because if we just have a goal and if we just come expecting that we're going win a national championship at Tennessee it's not going to happen unless you put in the work. So we're trying to get better every day. The future is national championship, and now is get better."

Summitt gets regular reports from Mason on the team's performance, and she astutely noted that only one variable changed.

"I think it's been amazing the difference," Summitt said. "Heather's not changed, but somehow she's brought out the absolute best in them as this point in time. She's not going to let them take shortcuts or compromise and she didn't last year, but they didn't get it. I think now they get it.

"I am very pleased at this point, but we've still got a ways to go."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories