Vicki Baugh, a splendidly athletic 6'4 power forward, had made brief appearances at practice for the past several sessions and was able to go for about an hour on Saturday morning.
Still, Baugh is coming back from two ACL surgeries on her left knee – one in May 2008 and the other in February 2009 – so her status for this season is not yet known. The goal is for her to play, but Pat Summitt is prepared for any scenario.
"I told her if you get back this year, that's great," Summitt said. "If you can't, we deal with it. I am not pushing her at all. It's up to Jenny and Heather (Mason)."
Baugh has been participating in drills – though not at top speed – in the half-court setting. She went the length of the court early in Saturday's session in a layup drill and has been working on landing on both feet.
Baugh played last season and had two excellent back-to-back games against Stanford at home before Christmas and then at Gonzaga after the break. She was sprinting the floor, leaping with ease and playing without thinking about her knee. Her wrap-around-the-back-and-score layup was a highlight against the Zags.
But on a Jan. 1, 2009, practice in a New Jersey gym two days before the Rutgers game, Baugh elevated for a rebound and landed hard on just her left leg. She sprained a different ligament in the knee and that set in motion missed games, no to limited practice and then cameo appearances in games – she twice played barely enough seconds to register in the box score – as she retested the knee. Then, in early February, Baugh re-tore the ACL against Oklahoma on a move to the basket in which she caught the ball, landed on her left leg, and – just as she did in Tampa in the national title game in 2008 – finished the layup despite shredding her knee.
Playing on balance has been the focal point of this rehab.
"We worked on it the first rehab as well, however, I don't know how much she bought into it as much as she is buying into it this time," Moshak said.
The game plan is to insert Baugh into practice situations and see how the knee responds.
"She's progressing in and out (of practice)," Moshak said. "She's in with what she can do and when it talks to her a little too much, we pull her out, so it's really her taking control of some of this. She is very good at moving in one direction and not so good at moving in the other direction. She's lacking some explosiveness. The good news is she is really learning to jump and land correctly on two feet, and she is more balanced.
"But she's had two surgeries within a calendar year. It wasn't a little scope. It was two ACLs. She's very strong in the weight room, but it's the functional stuff that I can't simulate in a rehab setting. It's the speed of practice. So what we're doing is we're working her in and when it talks to her a little bit too much she comes out. We treat her, we work her back in, so it's going to be in and out, in and out for a little while."
By the knee talking Moshak means any movements that cause Baugh's knee to feel compromised in performance.
"Cutting and jumping are still the two and it's usually the speed of the situation so she's not really at game tempo yet," Moshak said. "The good news is she's ready and willing to try the next day and from the standpoint of physical, as well as mental and emotional, she's not giving up by any means."
Baugh did some limited work Thursday, Friday and Saturday. She didn't get worse, but she's not better yet either.
"I wouldn't say there's backsliding, but I wouldn't say there's huge advancement yet either," Moshak. "Kind of (a) plateau at this point. But the key is she's able to lift, and that's where her progress needs to be made right now."
The good news is swelling has not really been an issue.
"It's an amount that's manageable, if she has it at all," Moshak said. "Most of her complaint is patellar tendon pain. That's what they took. That's the graft."
In this type of graft the surgeon takes a strip of the tendon below the kneecap plus two plugs of bone on each end. The shredded ACL is removed, and the graft is put in place to become the patient's new ligament.
For her part Baugh said she is following the protocol for rehab and practice and has faith in Moshak to know when she is ready to fully play. The goal remains for Baugh to play this season, if possible.
"We're still shooting for that. Absolutely," Moshak said. "And it's her confidence in it and the team's confidence in it. She's got to be able to be out there and perform as well."
Cain is also returning from knee surgery. She had her right kneecap realigned and missed her freshman season in 2007-08. Last year the screws from that operation migrated out of the bone, and she had them removed last April. She spent the summer in rehab and has been trying to catch up conditioning-wise and get comfortable with what to her feels like a new knee. Moshak has released her completely.
"She's full go," Moshak said.
A sideline sign of her progress is that if Cain needs ice treatment on the knee she gets a frozen Dixie cup to rub on the knee and then she returns to the court. When a player moves from large bags of ice to Dixie cups it's a big step in the comeback.
Cain must still be cautious about getting the knee hit, especially anything that can cause hyperextension and irritate the kneecap. Briana Bass, a 5'2 guard, has been told by Summitt that she has to box out – she doesn't necessarily have to get the board, but she has to make sure someone else doesn't either – or she won't play, so Bass has been putting her body into whoever is behind her. Unfortunately if that is Cain, Bass' hips come to Cain's knees.
"If we can get Bree to quit boxing her out that low we'll be good," Moshak said. "That's what I told Kelley, ‘You should never be a situation where your knee has to go straight. Keep it bent the whole time. This sport is not played with a straight knee, so keep it bent.' "
Cain now has to focus on maintaining game tempo for 94 feet, but her movements in the paint have been fluid.
"We've got to get more quality reps up and down, but she's working hard," Summitt said.
"The players are going to have to learn to play to their strengths," Summitt said. "Lyssi Brewer is out there trying to be a guard. Glory Johnson shows up not ready to play today. Kamiko just picks and chooses when she'll play hard. We can't have an upperclassman not coming in here ready to compete. That is just unacceptable. We've got to pick up the intensity."
On a team without a single senior Summitt considers the sophomores – especially as much as they had to play last season – to be upperclassmen.
"Sure! Absolutely!" Summitt said. "I didn't have to say anything to Stricklen. Kinna is playing as well as she's played ever."
Shekinna Stricklen, the USBWA Freshman of the Year in 2009, has stood out for all the right reasons this week. She has been draining threes, putting the ball on the floor and finishing at the rim and running the point well. She also has been disruptive on defense.
The past two days of practice were held in conjunction with a clinic attended mostly by high school and AAU coaches, many of who circled Summitt after it ended Saturday for photos and autographs. The Lady Vol coaches wore microphones during the sessions and explained the drills.
"This was more like teaching so they could see how we teach and how we run things," Summitt said.
The tone and tenor will change Monday when the team retakes the floor. Because it was fall break there were no practice guys available. Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike, who practiced with the team on Thursday, did some court work and rehab but didn't practice with the team Friday or Saturday. She likely will join the guys Monday.
"When we get our practice guys back we'll be able to go more up and down and really going against people that are bigger, more physical, stronger and all that and see how we battle," Summitt said.
Since the sessions were in the arena, the players used the visitor's locker room to change clothes. They still have to earn back the plush locker room that they lost last season as a team. Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick delivered a reminder on the court Saturday.
"Holly made mention when she walked the group over one time when they really needed to pick it up: ‘Did y'all forget that we lost in the first round last year?' " Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow said. "So that's still on our brains. It's very fresh on our brains whereas to them it may not be as fresh, because they definitely want to forget it, but it's something that is going to always be on our minds, because it's a flashback. When we see things that aren't going well, we are like, ‘Oh, God, it's like last year.'
"But I think the biggest thing is staying positive and encouraging them, but when we have to get on them, we have to get on them, and they have to understand, ‘This is not acceptable.' Because last year our defense at times was not good. It was not good at all."
A sophomore who can't play this season, Amber Gray, continued her role as team booster. Gray suffered a stroke last July brought on by a brain aneurysm that was discovered when she underwent a shoulder operation. She will redshirt this season and plans to play next year.
She roamed the sideline and listened to the coaches, so she is getting a unique perspective from a player's point of view as she hears what the coaches expect while not being on the court and being a target of their ire. During one breakdown of a drill Warlick explained to Gray what she had hoped to see and what upset her. It's a perspective that should benefit Gray down the road.
"I definitely think she'll learn a whole lot more when she's sitting and watching than when she's playing," Summitt said.
Gray's family returned to Ohio on Saturday afternoon and her mother, Tonya Carter, repeatedly hugged her daughter and then spoke to and hugged Summitt before she left the arena. Summitt and the rest of the coaches will act as mother in absentia to keep an eye on Gray's progress.
"She is so excited to be back but I know Tonya is thinking, ‘Oh, my baby,' and rightfully so with all that she's been through," Summitt said.