Head coach Pat Summitt’s Lady Volunteers suffered the worst season last year in the coach’s Hall of Fame career, finishing 22-11 with a loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The young roster featured seven freshmen who saw significant playing time and only one graduating senior, Alex Fuller. This year’s team has no seniors, but Summitt says she isn’t concerned. She is looking for the returning players to step up and take leadership roles.
“I see leadership across the board in our freshmen, sophomores and juniors this season,” Summitt said. “Leaders have a way of rising to the top, and several players already have made their voices heard.”
The voices from the junior class belong to shooting guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone and post player Vicki Baugh. Summitt is pleased with the way the upperclassmen approached the offseason.
“This team, especially our junior class, wants to do things the right way,” Summitt said. “They are invested in our system both offensively and defensively, and they are paying attention to detail to get it right.”
Bjorklund was selected to the preseason first team All-SEC team after averaging 12.3 points per game last season. The Spokane Valley, Wash., native believes her experiences from last year will help translate to more wins this season.
“I have learned a lot about leadership from last year to this year,” Bjorklund said. “I am going to look at everything that I did or did not do last year. I think this year I need to be more of a vocal leader than I was last year.”
Bjorklund, along with Smallbone, have caught the coach’s eye in the offseason.
“Angie and Syd have both stepped up their leadership,” Summitt said. “I’m really pleased with Syd being so much more vocal.”
Baugh is coming off an ACL injury, but Summitt says she “outworks everyone around her.”
The sophomore class is led by Shekinna Stricklen. Tabbed as the Freshman of the Year last year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, Stricklen averaged 13.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3 assists per game last season.
Another player in her second season as a Lady Vol is 5-foot-2-inch point guard Briana Bass. Summitt likes the way her floor general has become outspoken and ready to be a key contributor to the team.
“Bree has become a very vocal leader at point guard for us now,” said Summitt. “She worked hard in the offseason on every phase of her game and knows she has to continue to set the example and not hesitate to have a strong voice for us on both ends of the floor.”
Summitt hopes last season’s growing pains will pay dividends this season when the Lady Vols face adversity in what she calls a “loaded” and “extremely challenging” schedule.
“I can see a big difference with this team over last year,” she said. “There’s a lot I like about this team. We are much more mature, serious and focused. … (Last year) they were overwhelmed and didn’t quite understand what it took to be successful.”