Lady Vols earn kudos for effort

After three days of practice – lengthy, intense and in teaching mode – Pat Summitt is cautiously pleased. She knows the still-young team has a long way to go, but she has reasons to be encouraged, especially after hearing from Heather Mason that this crew bought into the conditioning program the best of any basketball team that she has handled.

The Lady Vols will get an off day Thursday while Coach Pat Summitt and junior guard Angie Bjorklund travel to Birmingham, Ala., for SEC Media Day. It will be Bjorklund's second trip to the event in an indication of how young Tennessee was last year and how young they remain. Seniors usually attend Media Day, but Tennessee doesn't have a single one on the roster.

Bjorklund, a two-year starter, has played like a veteran this preseason, and has earned the trust of Summitt, who has been particularly pleased with her perimeter players.

"It's the difference a year makes, and players got in the gym in the off-season," Summitt said. "Shekinna (Stricklen) looks terrific. I am pleased with Alicia (Manning) and what she's bringing. We've got to work on setting and using screens because Angie doesn't need a whole lot of space."

That has been the most noticeable improvement in Bjorklund's offensive game – her release is quicker, and she is not just settling for three-pointers. She has been able to get off shots – and hit them consistently – with just a sliver of daylight from the defense.

Summitt also got word from Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach, that this team has performed the best of any Lady Vol basketball squad she has worked with in her seven years at Tennessee. Mason reported to Summitt both their off-season dedication over the summer, when players can't be forced to participate, and their approach this preseason, when workouts are mandatory.

"I've had a good feeling about them for awhile," Summitt said. "Heather had given me a head's up on how hard they had worked in the off-season, and they invested more, and this team put in more hours and made the biggest commitment since Heather's been here.

"They have to volunteer to do it. Nobody is making them, and they all got together and she said it's been amazing. She said you're going to see a whole different group, and you're going to see a whole different competitive level."

It's the kind of commitment the coaches would hope to hear about after an 11-loss season. The disappointment of last season, however, has not dimmed Summitt's popularity and her presence at a high school in Texas in September caused Tennessee to have to report a secondary violation to the SEC.

Last month, according to media reports, Summitt and Tennessee Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood and LSU Coach Van Chancellor made a visit to Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, to see Meighan Simmons, a 5'8 shooting guard that both programs were recruiting. The UT coaches checked into the school office and were escorted to the gymnasium.

"When we got there LSU was already there so we visited with them, and then everybody wanted pictures," said Summitt, who was allowed to discuss the photo incident with the media since the matter involves Tennessee and has been officially filed with the SEC, but she can't discuss the recruit.

Dozens of fans converged on the coaches, including school administrators, parents, students and members of the boy's and girl's basketball teams. Coaches' trips to high schools are generally not media events – Summitt had never been photographed by the media on a school visit before – but the local media had been told by school officials that the two high-profile SEC coaches would be there, and it set off a frenzy.

"There were a lot of people there," said Summitt, who was not aware that members of the media were also present.

A photo published in a San Antonio newspaper last month showed Lockwood and Summitt with Simmons, and that caused the Tennessee compliance department to initiate a probe. The photo was re-run in the Knoxville News Sentinel this past weekend after Simmons committed to the Lady Vols.

Todd Dooley, an assistant athletic director for compliance, said Wednesday that Tennessee conducted its investigation and reported the incident, which is considered an institutional secondary violation and not one that affects a player's eligibility, to the SEC. The information was released to the news media once the report was finalized and submitted to the SEC.

"We just have to say right off that we need to make certain that there are no media people in attendance because if they're there we can't be there," Summitt said.

Dooley clarified that the rule does not apply to coaches being photographed by media at high school gyms during games – Summitt and other high-profile coaches have routinely appeared in newspaper photographs while on the recruiting circuit – because their presence counts as an evaluation of every player on the floor and not a specific recruit.

Dooley said the compliance department's protocol is to conduct an investigation and then submit a final report to the conference. The SEC then will forward the report to the NCAA, Dooley said.

Summitt's popularity and demand for speaking engagements have increased even more since she reached the milestone of 1,000 career wins last season.

"It blew the doors open but that's OK, because our fans are excited and anxious for the season," Summitt said.

Summitt is being mobbed in Knoxville, a city accustomed to seeing her around town, and she said even going out to eat becomes an event, as well wishers crowd around her table seeking photos and autographs.

"Right now I can't go anywhere," said Summitt, who seemed surprised by the amount of attention in an area she has lived in since 1974. "But I like the fact that we have great fan support."

Summitt has always been the happiest when she's at practice, and the team had three consecutives sessions this week that were lengthy and productive. Despite the fact official practice just got underway last Friday, the team is already absorbing new concepts and getting refreshers on old ones. Summitt said with just three freshmen on the floor, Taber Spani, Faith Dupree and Kamiko Williams, it's easier to assimilate them into the group.

"We got a lot in," Summitt said. "We threw a lot at them and the fact that we only have a few newcomers that's good. Faith, Taber and Kamiko can all get together and look at film and invest and make sure that they get up to speed."

Dupree has been impressive in her ability to hit shots. The coaches knew that about her, but she has surprised them with her willingness to run the floor. Dupree has been sprinting to the rim in full-court drills and that got the coaches' attention.

"A couple of our coaches said it's going to be hard to keep her off the floor," Summitt said.

Amber Gray, who is sitting out this season to recover from shoulder surgery and a stroke, continues to be a vocal presence at practice. She frequently congratulates her teammates after good plays and after one that didn't go well, she shouted out what the post players should have done. It's a learning experience for Gray on the sideline that should serve her well in her comeback.

The loss to Ball State – although a painful one for the program – will always be tempered by the fact that Gray remains a part of the program.

"Once how everything played out it may have saved Amber's life," Summitt said.

Gray got hurt in a team workout session after the loss that was very intense – postseason practices usually amount to little more than walk-throughs and shooting drills to save legs and avoid injuries – but with Tennessee done for the season Summitt pushed the team hard. On the day Gray was hurt Tennessee would have been on a flight to California had it won the sub-regional. As it ended up, Gray injured her shoulder and ultimately needed surgery, which led to the discovery of the bleeding brain aneurysm that caused the stroke. Had that discovery not occurred in a hospital where intensive care was available immediately Gray could have collapsed and died or been severely brain damaged for life.

"It all happened the way it happened for a reason," Summitt said. "I just thank the good Lord above that things worked out for Amber."

The team will return to practice Friday and also will hold sessions this weekend. Summitt hasn't determined next week's practice schedule yet, because she will be in Indianapolis next Wednesday to speak at the posthumous tribute to former NCAA President Myles Brand, who passed away Sept. 16 after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

Summitt was selected to speak to represent NCAA women's basketball at the retrospective for Brand. The NCAA, in conjunction with Indiana University, is presenting the tribute at Conseco Fieldhouse.

"The NCAA, and women's collegiate basketball in particular, benefited from the strong leadership and vision Myles Brand provided throughout his tenure as president," Summitt said. "He has left an indelible mark on intercollegiate athletics and will be remembered as a champion of the student-athlete."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories