Amber Gray to return to Knoxville

When Tonya Carter pulled into the parking lot outside the soccer stadium – it was Amber Gray's first trip to Knoxville since leaving the city on a medical jet – she said she would not just drop her off and leave. Gray assured her that Shekinna Stricklen would be there as promised. When Carter looked up again, she saw not only Gray's college roommate, but nearly the entire Lady Vol team.

It was that kind of support – plus the blessings from Amber Gray's doctors – that eased the decision to allow Gray to return to Knoxville full-time. Gray has made two weekend trips to Knoxville with her mother, but this time Tonya Carter will return to Ohio and leave her daughter at an off-campus apartment with Lady Vol sophomore guard Shekinna Stricklen, who said Thursday she was ready to welcome back her roommate.

"It's Shekinna. It's the whole team," Carter said in a phone interview Thursday evening. "The first time we went Amber wanted to go to the soccer game. We pulled up at the gate and I was nervous. I said, ‘Sweetie, I am not just going to let you out at the gate. Somebody needs to come get you.' She said, ‘Mom, Shekinna said she would come out and meet me.' A couple of minutes later, we look up and it's (nearly) the whole team, and they all said they were all responsible for her."

Moving day is set for Oct. 16, which also happens to be the start of official practice for the 2009-10 season. That wasn't a coincidence for Gray.

"It was definitely in my head the entire time," Gray said.

"She said in the beginning, ‘Mom, I will be back in Knoxville before the season starts,' " Carter said. "I said, ‘Amberly, these things take time.' And oddly enough her neurosurgeon said, ‘All you have to do is come back and see me on the 15th and you're gone.' From a timing perspective that was her goal and that lined up with the recommendation of the medical team."

Amber Gray at Photo Day on Sept. 10 at Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Lady Vol media relations)

Throughout her medical ordeal – which began with left shoulder surgery on July 3 to repair a torn labrum – Gray has defied the odds. She was injured in a late March workout session a few days after Tennessee lost in the NCAA Tournament in the first round. She first tried rest and rehab, but the shoulder continued to cause problems so it was determined that she would have surgery in the summer and began a six-month rehab.

But unbeknownst to Gray or any of the medical personnel, she had an aneurysm in her brain – likely something she was born with – and it had started to bleed. The surgery went well, and then she crashed, medically speaking, and had to be put on a respirator as her lungs filled with fluid. It was determined that Gray had suffered a stroke – a series of events that could have killed her but the fact it happened at St. Mary's Medical Center in Knoxville meant she was immediately treated in intensive care.

Her teammates and coaches maintained a vigil at the hospital. Once the aneurysm was discovered, Gray, who was on a stretcher and remembers little of the ordeal, and her mother were flown by medical jet to Cincinnati, where renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Mario Zuccarello of the Mayfield Clinic and the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute performed a 12.5-hour surgery to clip the aneurysm.

"I remember some things," Gray said. "I think, in a way, it's better I don't remember everything. Even the doctors are saying it's better I don't remember everything. It wasn't an easy time."

On July 23, Gray was moved to the Drake Center in Ohio to begin an extensive rehabilitation. Shortly after her arrival, Gray told her mother that she intended to leave soon.

"I told my mom, ‘Look, I'm leaving here in a couple of weeks,' " Gray said. "And she was like, ‘Amber, you have to do what the doctors tell you.' And I was like, ‘No, I am not staying here much longer.' I have had goals set in my mind the entire time, and I am doing whatever I can to hit my goals."

Gray walked out of the Drake Center under her own power on Aug. 11.

Carter's role throughout the rehab process was to sometimes slow down her daughter, but now she is comfortable with Gray returning to school.

"She has made significant progress that I have noticed, but we have met with a plethora of medical people that have also fully supported her transition," Carter said. "She wants to take classes on a full-time basis in January. We will work with the academic folks at UT where she'll take at least one online class from October until January. There is nothing medically that would cause us to want to keep her home.

"She'll be able to take the next year or so to continue her rehabilitation, continue to build her strength. There is nothing medically at this point that is holding her back. It's just time. It's amazing. I don't know any other way to explain it."

Gray has been released to resume driving an automobile – she got that clearance two weeks ago – and her left eye, which had weakened and become shut after the stroke, has completely opened with muscle strength restored.

"Her eye is not only open she's regained muscle control and her vision is the same as it was the last time she had an eye exam a year and a half ago," Carter said. "She looks amazing. She is just continuing to work hard. She still goes to physical therapy. She's doing weights on her legs already."

Gray said she has not been able to run yet and still has a slight limp, but she has picked up a basketball.

"I am not able to shoot yet using my left hand, but I have picked a ball up a little bit and dribbled around, and I have done some shooting with just my right hand, but I am not taking any chances on using that left arm until I am down there with Jenny (Moshak), and she's released me to do little things, because I am not going to have any setbacks," Gray said. "I can't afford to have any more setbacks. You know what I mean?"

Gray lets loose a laugh after that remark – an understatement of immeasurable proportion that indicates how well she is doing emotionally after the ordeal.

"I am just doing what they tell me to do and getting it done the first time," Gray said. "When I have the ball in my hand I feel so much better. I feel relieved, blessed more than anything. I definitely do feel blessed."

Amber Gray, center in gray shorts and T-shirt, walks down Ramp 10 with her teammates during a conditioning workout last March. It was one of her last sessions with her team as she would injure her shoulder a few days later and be held out of workouts. Gray has vowed to return to the court. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Tennessee is awaiting final word from the NCAA and the SEC on what Gray is allowed to do with the team. She will remain on athletic scholarship but is not enrolled this fall so the NCAA must outline specifics such as access to Tennessee facilities and medical care.

"I am going to be wherever I can, whatever I can do," Gray said. "My goal is to be at every practice, if that's possible, every home game, wherever I can be."

Coach Pat Summitt said the return would be an immediate boost to the team.

"It will at least give her a chance to come back and be around her teammates," Summitt said. "There is no question what happened brought everybody closer. I think for the team it will be real positive to know that she's back and she's doing better and she's going to be a part of our team."

Stricklen roomed with Gray as a freshman last season in the dorm. The sophomores are then allowed to move off campus, and Stricklen is happy to be getting back her roommate.

"I am so ready for her to get back," Stricklen said. "She's ready to get back. We're close as a team, but we're like the closest two on the team, and I really miss her.

"I think the whole team is so excited for her to be back here with us. She can't practice with us but knowing what all she has been through and she's still standing strong, that just motivates us all. Having her here is really going to pick this team up."

When Gray and her mother made the first trip to Knoxville on the last weekend of August it was Stricklen who told them she would be waiting to escort Gray into the Lady Vols soccer stadium and then had nearly the entire team on hand.

"It meant a lot," Gray said. "People are very upset that we didn't have the best season last year, but it definitely didn't tear us apart. If anything it brought us closer together and all that I've gone through has helped that, too. We are a very close-knit team and we have each other's back through thick and thin no matter what is happening in each other's lives.

"It meant a lot but more importantly it meant a lot for my mom, because now she's not worried about me going back to Knoxville, because she knows that my team will be there for me."

Stricklen also can serve as an extra set of eyes for Carter and let her know how her daughter is doing.

"When she came down for a couple of times on the weekends, I was like her taxi. No, I'm just playing, but I've been driving her around, and I am really ready for her to get back," Stricklen said.

"Me and her mom talk a lot. I was at home when she was still in the hospital (in Ohio) so I called her mom a lot. We communicate a lot."

"Me and Shekinna have gotten really close over the past year," Gray said. "She is like a sister to me. But it's not only her; it's the whole team. As close as we've gotten it's also the team. It is going to be fun. We're very close. I know if I am having a bad day or things are not going well she is going to be right there to pick me up."

Carter said the plan is to see Dr. Zuccarello on Oct. 15 and then depart for Knoxville early the next morning. It is a trip delayed for Gray but one she is grateful to be making.

"I thought I was going in for shoulder surgery and would be in Knoxville right now, but obviously God had other plans for me," Gray said. "As much as I've been through and as bad as times have been for me I don't think once did I ever expect that I was not going to be able to get back to Knoxville.

"I don't think there are words that can describe it. I am very excited to get back to school, and just to be able to play again."

While living in Mason, Ohio, for the past several weeks Gray has received cards from Lady Vol fans that had been forwarded to her by Tennessee. She asked for the chance to thank those fans for the support.

"I am still receiving cards," Gray said. "I just want to thank them all – in the paper and online – just tell them thank you all the love and support, and you'll see me back on the court one day."

It was hard for Carter to keep her emotions in check when she was asked how thrilled she would be to drive her 19-year-old daughter back to college after nearly losing her in July.

"Thrilled doesn't even really capture it," Carter said. "I am so proud. I am so happy for her. Initially she worked so hard to even become a part of the Lady Vols program, and I have watched her work twice as hard to go back."

NEW HIRE: Pat Summitt has hired Stephanie Glance, a longtime assistant at N.C. State and interim head coach for the Wolfpack after the death of Kay Yow, to be her special assistant.

The position matches for the Lady Vols program an equivalent spot held by the men's program.

"We had the position come open," Summitt said. "It is a new position. The guys have got the same position and basically she is like the administrator for the head coach. I'm excited about it. I thought a lot about it because it came down to the final two candidates, and one was (former Lady Vol point guard) Dena Head.

"A lot of it goes back to my working days with Coach Yow. They didn't retain Stephanie, I knew she was going to be working with the Kay Yow Foundation but I didn't know if that was going to be a full-time job, and she'll continue to do that, but obviously here she'll be working with me. I told the team I wanted to hire Stephanie and I think a big part of it is I had known her a long time. She is very professional and I thought Stephanie showed great focus and character through the whole situation when she was asked to coach when Kay was not able to be there."

Yow lost a lengthy battle with breast cancer last January, and Glance, who had directed the team when Yow had been hospitalized in parts of the 2006-07 and 2008-09 seasons, finished the season at the helm for the Wolfpack.

N.C. State hired former Lady Vol point guard Kellie Jolly Harper, who had been the head coach at Western Carolina, to replace Yow.

Glance, who has extensive coaching experience, won't be able to perform those duties with the Lady Vols, but she can travel and assist Summitt with day-to-day tasks, such as handling phone calls – though not from recruits – and correspondence.

"That's going to help me in a lot of ways, having her on the road with me," Summitt said. "We can keep up with (everything)."

Stephanie Glance (Photo courtesy of Lady Vols media relations)

Glance arrived in Knoxville on Thursday to sign her paperwork, meet the team and staff and search for a residence. She will make the move to Tennessee from Cary, N.C.

Glance, a native of Clyde, N.C., was the recruiting coordinator for Southwest Texas State (1993-94) and the University of South Florida (1988-93) before arriving at N.C. State. She played at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., from 1982 to 1985 and earned her bachelor of arts in English and education in 1985.

"It will be a variety of things that the NCAA rules allow me to do," Glance said. "I should be able to be at practice and the games. As far as basketball goes I can't coach based on NCAA rules. I will be doing administrative things. I will help the director of basketball operations some.

"I am excited about being in this program, and I am excited about working for Pat. That is just a great opportunity. It is one of the top programs in the country, and she is the all-time winningest coach so I am just excited to continue to learn and grow in the profession."

Glance served for 15 seasons under Yow and was the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator and was in charge of the daily operations of the women's basketball program. She worked with post and perimeter player development, monitored the academic progress of the team, oversaw practice and game preparation, and was the scheduling coordinator. During her tenure in Raleigh, the Wolfpack made 11 NCAA appearances, four Sweet 16 berths and one Final Four.

"I have not ruled out coaching in the future," Glance said. "I do want to get back into coaching at some point. This is a great opportunity for me at this point in my career to be in this program, so I am looking forward to it, all phases of it.

"I've known Pat over the years and, of course, she and Kay were really good friends for a long period of time, and just out on the recruiting trails we would talk and visit so when this opportunity came up it was great.

"I want to contribute to this program, and all of those possibilities are still being defined. This is a new position for Pat as well. We're both waiting to see what evolves. There will be a lot that evolves over the course of this season."

LADY VOL PRACTICE: Tennessee held an hour-long, nearly nonstop session at Pratt Pavilion on Thursday that began with defensive drills and ended with full-court scrimmages against the male practice players.

Pat Summitt, at left, talks to the team during a brief break in the action Thursday at Pratt Pavilion. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

It was the most energetic and upbeat session of the young preseason – beginning with the sprints conducted by Heather Mason and ending with the team officially meeting Stephanie Glance.

"Everybody was fired up, excited, in a good mood," Shekinna Stricklen said. "If everyone has that intensity, everyone works hard, and we were all diving for loose balls, practice goes well."

The Lady Vols will hold another hour-long session on Saturday – they are limited to two hours a week until Oct. 16 – but it will be held in Pratt and will not be open to the public.

Tennessee will have two recruits on campus for official visits: Lauren Avant, a 5'9 point guard from Lausanne School in Memphis who committed to the Lady Vols when she was 14 years old and has never wavered from that decision; and Meighan Simmons, a 5'8 shooting guard from Cibolo, Texas, who has earned evaluation raves for both her defense and shooting ability. Tennessee is one of five finalists for Simmons. The other four are LSU, Maryland, Rutgers and Duke.

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