Heather Mason gets Lady Vol assist

A year ago when the Lady Vols pulled into Knoxville after a first round loss in the NCAA tourney, the coaches and Heather Mason headed to the basketball offices and began to brainstorm. The players had already held their own meeting with a clear directive to each other: Get to work.

"We got right off the bus and met," said Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach. "It was not eat lunch; it was we're meeting. We looked at a timetable (of how long we had and what could get done)."

Tennessee was in very unfamiliar territory a year ago – late March and no games left to be played. Pat Summitt consulted compliance to get the rules on what she was allowed to do with her team in the postseason once they were eliminated. The answer was two hours of court time and six hours of strength and conditioning per week.

The result of the toughest workouts Summitt had ever witnessed as a coach has Tennessee back in very familiar territory – the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols practiced Thursday in Knoxville – Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick told Inside Tennessee on ESPN Radio Knoxville 1180 that the session was light with a review of defensive and offensive game plans – and then departed for Memphis by charter flight.

The players will meet with the media Friday and then hold an open practice at 1:05 p.m. Central time Friday at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. Tipoff between No. 1 seed Tennessee, 32-2, and No. 4 seed Baylor, 25-9, is set for 11:04 a.m. Central time (ESPN) on Saturday.

That's an early tip time, but "I am not concerned about it," Warlick said. "We just keep to our routine, and make sure they go to bed a little earlier and get some rest."

The fact Tennessee is playing Saturday can be traced back to a young team at a crossroads a year ago after finishing the season 22-11 and being bounced out in the first round for the first time in program history. Every Tennessee team since 1982 had at least made the Sweet 16.

The primary issues identified by the coaches were a lack of competitiveness and mental toughness throughout the team. So they posed the question to Mason in that meeting.

"They said, ‘Heather, we have to compete on every single possession. What can you do and how can we get better?' " Mason said.

Mason, one of the most creative minds on campus and a coach Summitt has said was even tougher than her, came up with an assortment of workouts intended to push the players to their breaking point.

Mason couldn't do those types of workouts when the players first arrived on campus. But they had spent nearly seven months under her tutelage by late March 2009 – preseason workouts had started the previous August – and their bodies were ready for new challenges. Mason figured the minds would follow.

"It would be unethical for me as a strength coach to have those freshmen walk in and do what we're doing now," Mason said. "That's breaking someone. Our first goal is performance enhancement. It's not breaking you down. My job is to know where they are physically and then put them on the line.

"If I took a freshman that just walked in the door in August and put them into something like this, they will break. Even if I could technically coach them up they will break mentally. Emotionally, they will break bad."

But by last spring, those players were ready to be pushed. So, Mason devised a series of workouts that included pushing grocery carts loaded with barbell weights, pulling weighted sleds, flipping truck tires, human wheelbarrow races, exhausting medicine ball drills and one-on-one battles of tug-of-war with a rope. But there were two drills in particular that were best described as brutal – one took place outside, the other inside.

The outside venue was Gate 10, a steep incline to the top of Neyland Stadium. The players had to sprint up and jog down repeatedly in a fixed amount of time or repeat the entire set. Alyssia Brewer nicknamed that one the Himalayas.

The inside venue was the football complex in a drill Mason called "the snake," and Brewer renamed "the anaconda." Mason described it best.

"We take the football field, and you sprint across the field (a distance of 53.3 yards), you jog up five yards and then sprint over, so you're going to keep doing this on every line," Mason said. "We're going to ‘snake' up all the way through, 100 yards, on every line, and we're going to do that three times. On every minute, there is going to be interval, whether it's a 10-second interval, 20-second interval, and they immediately have to react and get in a defensive stance. Then, there's a stance for a certain amount of time."

That's tough enough on its own, but Mason added a basketball wrinkle.

"Now, here's the hard part," Mason said. "Your three football fields you have to make it in a goal time, and (last spring) the goal time was 14 minutes. In your defensive stance, if your heels come together, your hips are not low, your hands drop, we'll send you back to the beginning of the line. Boom, and I'll say, ‘Back,' sprint across the field and start again. Now, you're in trouble (to finish on time)."

That would be an understatement of length-of-a-football-field proportion.

"It puts importance on defensive stance in a fatigue state," Mason said. "They still have to finish the three football fields before time expires. If time expires and you have not finished within that allotted amount of time, you have to do the whole thing over again."

Needless to say, a lot of players repeated the drill over and over last spring.

"It's not nice," Mason said. "You're closing on two miles of stance and running. You're going to have to book it. It's aerobic conditioning time and it's muscular endurance time. It's putting basketball-specific ideas, mentality, strategies within an aerobic plan. It challenges the mind. The one piece that we're really looking at is ‘Iron Will.' We're looking at individual accountability where all the other times of the year we're looking at team accountability."

But Mason was actually touched by how the team came together. The players were competing against each other – they were ranked how they finished and the higher the finish, the less extra running tacked on at the end of each drill. The winner was rewarded with no penalties.

"Do it right the first time mentality," Mason said.

Despite that survival-of-the-fittest mode, the players helped each other. One who had finished circled back to pace a teammate to keep her from having to repeat the entire drill. They locked arms, literally sometimes, and hearts, figuratively speaking, and pushed each other to the finish lines.

"Even though it's individual accountability, results based on the ranking dictate your penance, how much you run after that drill, (they all) want each other to do well," said Mason, who added this team is one of the tightest she had ever coached. "When they get angry about a drill, it's because they lost. One thing I've noticed is they still pat each other on the back."

Summitt would watch the workouts, and she said this past weekend during a pre-game press conference that they were tough to witness.

"I have never seen human bodies just rain sweat," Summitt said. "But we had human bodies just raining sweat. (Mason is) so creative with it and the whole time, it's amazing, ‘Yes, indeed, indeed, yes, yes, great job, yes, indeed.' She is Ms. Positive.

"Their bodies changed physically, but their minds probably changed even more so mentally. They couldn't give in to fatigue. If you decide to do it, she held everybody accountable, so you give in to fatigue, you don't touch a line, we start over."

Summitt attributed part of the team-first attitude that forged in the team last spring and really solidified over the summer to the ordeal enduring by forward Amber Gray, who entered the hospital last July for shoulder surgery and nearly died after an aneurysm burst in her brain and caused a stroke.

"I think Amber had a real effect on them," Summitt said. "This team when that happened to Amber, I had to run them out of the hospital. They wanted to sleep there."

The players didn't stay away long. They went home to sleep and change clothes and returned the next day, maintaining a vigil, until Gray was airlifted to a specialized hospital in Ohio for brain surgery. Gray has since returned to school and is undergoing rehab with a goal to return to the court one day.

No wonder then that Gate 10 and the snake – although the players said the drills were horrifically hard at times – didn't seem insurmountable.

Kelley Cain could not participate in the drills last spring – she had just had an operation to remove two migrating screws from a lower leg bone after having her right kneecap surgically realigned – but she joined the team over the summer and in preseason workouts last August.

Cain remained in the football complex to rehab her knee, and, like Summitt, watched the players push themselves physically and mentally after the worst loss any of them had ever experienced.

"We had no other choice but to go up from there," Cain said. "That felt like that was one of our lowest points. It was hard for her to watch. It was hard for me to watch. When I had to participate, it was hard for me to do. It was one of the hardest things that we've ever had to do in our lives and from there everything has gotten easier.

"No matter if we're competing against each other, we're still a team, and we want everybody to finish. That is our ultimate goal is for everybody to finish."

The players maintained their sense of humor, too. Alicia Manning made up lyrics about the workouts to the tune of "Lean on Me." When the three freshmen, Taber Spani, Kamiko Williams and Faith Dupree, arrived on campus, they joined the returning players in the workouts, which were then voluntary over the summer.

Spani had said last April that she couldn't wait to work out under Mason's direction. That sentiment didn't change after she actually went through it.

"I love her," Spani said this week. "I love the fact that Heather has everything a competition. We're a competitive team so it adds that dimension where you're not necessarily focused on the running only, you've got to actually be thinking and your mindset has got to be right during this running, and you want to win. It gets us in great condition and us being able to push up and down the floor and run teams up and down, it's showing that the conditioning is really paying off.

"As much as it helps physically, it probably is just as much mentally. Our team is strong, and we know we are very tough, so I think that it helps in all of those aspects."

Spani is fighting a chronic case of turf toe and has been under restrictions for weeks in terms of court work - and especially extra shooting - a predicament akin to punishment for the preternatural first-year player. Against Dayton on Monday, she hit her first seven shots and finished 7-8 for 17 points, a indication she had recently been in the gym, though apparently with the endorsement, to some degree, of Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.

"I am not supposed to," Spani said with a hint of a smile. "I am on a very limited basis. I will try and then JMo will have to be, ‘Taber, what are you doing? You have to be very smart.' I'll be like, ‘OK, JMo.' I try to once or twice a week. It depends on if I can get past JMo's eye. No, she always knows, but she just knows that I have to be very careful.

"I know my body, so I know what I can and can't do, and I know I need a certain amount of shots to be prepared. For me, as a shooter, you need to get shots in. I know that but definitely not as many as I would like. It's a balance."

The foot is somewhat better thanks to daily rehab, but what Spani will need when the season is over is some extended rest.

"It's OK," Spani said. "I need it for four (more) games and then we'll sit down and talk to JMo and coach after the season. Probably a couple of months of rest and get it fully healed. That's what this injury is – it needs rest. We'll see, but it's feeling better than it did mid-SEC but definitely not even near 100 percent."

Spani's performance Monday likely rewrote the scouting report on her, and she will have to be accounted for on the court. That is what Summitt expected when she signed the 6'1 forward with deep three-ball range, but the painful condition in her left foot meant Spani had to make some adjustments on both sides of the ball.

"I've grown so used to dealing with the limitations that it provides that maybe it's harder to judge how it really did affect me," Spani said. "I've lived with it for six months. There are some things that I just can't do, but I have tried to adjust my game to those."

Summitt is aware of the limitations the foot creates for Spani on defense, but she will trade that for the offensive end, as Spani has to be guarded several feet behind the arc. She also can chop the court in half and play a short game.

"Her versatility is what allows her to play the way she was playing," Summitt said. "She can shoot the three. She can step out short corner. She can go in and post up. She's a player that can play all over the floor on the offensive end. Defensively, she's gotten better. I think she'll stretch the defense (when Tennessee has the ball).

"She's doing better (with her foot). I think right now she's in a pretty good place."

The presence of Spani also means perimeter defenders can't just focus on Angie Bjorklund, who can launch from behind the arc, and Shekinna Stricklen, who can shoot from long range or put the ball on the floor.

The emergence of Manning - she moved into the starting lineup in February - and the effectiveness of Spani off the bench has provided Tennessee with depth on the offensive end as both players can set up inside or on the perimeter.

"If it's A-Town or it's me, whoever's in the game, I just love the fact that our team is so balanced," Spani said. "(Dayton) tried to key in on our posts and face-guarding Angie and Strick, and it cost them, because we're so balanced that other people can step up.

"It's vital for everyone out on the court to realize their role and to realize that they need to make a difference and make sure that the defense is playing them straight up so that Kelley doesn't always have to be doubled and Ang can get off some picks and not be face-guarded the entire game. I think it helps everyone involved and for everybody to go in and be aggressive and look for the shots that they're supposed to take or they're supposed to create."

Spani is under orders from Summitt to look to score - her step-back three is nearly un-guardable; she consistently hit it in practice Wednesday over a taller male practice player - and nailing that first shot in a game is a boost for any shooter. Stroking the first seven is especially sweet.

"It helps a lot," Spani said of the first offering falling Monday. "It helps your confidence. It's nice to get that first one to go in. But, for me, I am still going to try and be aggressive. It's not drastic, but it always helps.

"Everyone that goes on the floor needs to make their minutes count and so I know that when I go in I need to make an impact right away. Hunting for my shots and taking pressure off the posts when they do double down. Sure, it's the tournament, and it's crunch time, but I think it's just the fact that I want to go in and make every minute that I play count."

Making that happen starts with Mason. How much credit should Mason get for where Tennessee is right now?

"A lot," Spani said. "Starting from last April when they started doing ‘Iron Will,' to when us freshmen got here, this team has been working for the past year straight. Heather has got a lot to do with that, and I know Pat's always giving her credit. Us athletes physically see the changes that she has helped us make, and she deserves a lot of credit."

So which drill was the most brutal - Gate 10 or the snake?

"You would probably get varied answers from the girls," Spani said. "Gate 10 is brutal. It really is. That incline is a lot steeper than you think it is. They say you can walk down, but you can't walk down. You've got to basically jog three-quarters sprint down, because it is all timed. For me I would probably say Gate 10 because of the elevation factor. Running on flat ground is a lot easier."

When Spani was told that Gate 10 would be demolished as part of the ongoing renovations at Neyland Stadium she looked crestfallen.

"That's kind of sad," Spani said. "After our preseason I told Faith, ‘Faith, we only have three more seasons of preseason workouts left.' She's like, ‘OK …. ' I am like, ‘That's sad. That is just sad to me.' We need to have a ceremony (at Gate 10 when it's demolished."

Summitt just smiled and shook her head when told that the freshman would miss the ramp.

"We'll find somewhere else," Summitt said. "We'll hike up to LeConte a few times."

Summitt was kidding, maybe, but she has not hesitated for months to praise Mason for what she did with the players in the off-season.

Dean Lockwood, who often coaches the post players, asked Mason to make them more explosive both to the rim on offense and when rebounding. The medicine balls, which were tossed in the air and thrown against walls, addressed that from the ankles to the hips.

"We're looking at triple extension," Mason said. "Extension of the ankle, extension of the knee, extension of the hip, sequentially, and being explosive while playing."

All of the coaches requested individual accountability, leaner bodies, lower defensive stances and overall effort the first time.

Mason allowed no shortcuts. A toe missing a line meant the entire team started over from the beginning of the drill. The second the players crossed into Mason's arena - whether the ramp, the football complex or Pratt Pavilion - they were to start running. No walking was allowed between the lines.

"A coach sets the environment, but the players are the ones who actually do the work, and they're the ones who pull themselves their mentally," Mason said. "They learn a lot about themselves and their teammates. Coaches set the boundaries, but they've got to do the work."

Mason called the workouts "Iron Will," because she wanted the players to finish with the mindset, "I know now that I can work harder than I ever did before," she said.

It's a challenge for every player who has worked out for Mason. Former Lady Vol Shannon Bobbitt, a juco transfer with Alberta Auguste in 2007, initially chafed at the expectations.

"Bobbitt was going to leave after her first day," Mason said. "I'll never forget that."

Two years later, Bobbitt, who helped lead Tennessee to two national titles in 2007 and 2008, was in the WNBA and needing a conditioning regimen before her second training camp in 2009.

"Shannon called me and said, ‘Heather, will you make me a workout?' " Mason said.

Bjorklund, who faded at the end of her freshman year, asked Mason to turn her into a 40-minute player. Her body and mind have been transformed since she arrived in Knoxville, and Bjorklund learned from those drills that her focus was good in the beginning and end but waned in the middle.

"That's invaluable (to learn)," said Mason, who went to work fixing that interim time.

"Angie Bjorklund is ridiculous. Ridiculous," Mason said, using the word as a compliment. "She can just go and go and go and have the same acceleration all game."

Mason is often on the bench during the season. The coaches are watching execution. Mason is watching effort.

"To watch them in timeouts is so much fun because we're laughing," Mason said. "They're like, ‘Heather, I can run for days.' Last game, Lyssi (Brewer), there was one part, she had a hard time getting down, and she looked up at me and said, ‘I know. I know. I got it.' It's in her mind that I can't give in to that, no matter what. When it's in the forefront of her mind, that's a flat-up win."

So how far have her charges come since last April?

"Oh my, wow. That's wow. It's off the charts," Mason said. "You couldn't even say a number, really. Because they have mentally improved so much on what they can take physically, their physical capacity has exploded. So they're a different team, a whole different team.

"A little neck-up training with the whole neck-down training there is a big, big difference. Between the ears when they get that right and they turn it on, they can do whatever, that is when they have the Iron Will. It's fun to watch."

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