Fleser: Lady Vols needs to find its new leaders

Dan Fleser
With Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, left, watching, Lady Vols guard Angie Bjorklund, a prime candidate
for leadership duties this season, drives on Vanderbilt’s Merideth Marsh last season.

Photo by Saul Young

With Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, left, watching, Lady Vols guard Angie Bjorklund, a prime candidate for leadership duties this season, drives on Vanderbilt’s Merideth Marsh last season.

Angie Bjorklund's teammates will know what she's thinking this season.

Tennessee's junior guard intends to have her say on women's basketball matters. In the process, will her teammates also know what she's been eating?

Sounds like too much infor-mation. Not so, said Nicky Anosike. As a freshman, the former Lady Vol used to hear from senior teammate Shyra Ely in a chipotle-breathing manner and remembers such moments as having the right amount of inspiration.

"I don't know why to this day, but she always used to yell at me,'' Anosike said of Ely. "She would get right in my face and yell at me. I knew what she had for pregame (meal), that's how close she was.

"I remember the Rutgers game. We had to beat Rutgers to get to the Final Four in Indianapolis and she just laid into me so hard. There are no hard feelings, but it really put a fire underneath me, and I just really wanted to go out there and give whatever I had."

These encounters comes under the general heading of leadership. The undertaking can be as difficult as it is necessary, particularly at Tennessee where the stakes are high.

Prevailing circumstances increase the challenge. The communication lines of explanation and encouragement run from veterans to younger player but, for the first time in program history, there are no seniors on the UT roster. Furthermore, the junior class' stature has been diminished by multiple knee surgeries for Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain and a minor playing role for Sydney Smallbone.

Anosike regrets not channeling her inner Ely in the one season she played with the group to better prepare them.

"I know the coaches told me a lot of times not to be so harsh on them,'' Anosike said. "... A lot of times when I would watch their games last year, I kind of felt like it was partly my fault for not preparing them for last year because I wasn't tough on them at all."

At present, Bjorklund stands squarely before the bully pulpit. She shed her usual sunny disposition last March after a 22-11 season ended with a shocking first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ball State and warned her teammates, "If no one is motivated right now, the returning players, then they need to leave."

Although Bjorklund favors more candor, she's not stocking up on breath mints.

"I don't have sudden outbursts,'' Bjorklund said. "I always try to encourage my team as much as possible and have that positive reinforcement.

"But when I do say something, they know I mean it because I don't yell at them, so to speak, in that negative sense. So when I do, I think they really key in and listen to me and respect that."

Bjorklund and the Lady Vols still are adapting leadership responsibilities to their personalities. Their methods probably cannot be adequately forged until they are put into the heat of competition.

No. 8 Tennessee's first exhibition game is Thursday night against Carson-Newman College. The opener against No. 7 Baylor is Nov. 15 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

While tone and content are open to interpretation, last season should reinforce a fundamental truth about participation: Bjorklund better not be the only Lady Vol at the pulpit.

Leadership last season largely rested on the shoulders of Alex Fuller, the lone senior. She all but buckled under the weight of her role. UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood, the man of a thousand metaphors, described Fuller as a basketball Batman, who needed a Robin.

"To me personally, Alex, at times, seemed any combination of frustrated, exasperated, angry, somewhat isolated, all of those things she went through,'' he said.

He has vivid memories of Fuller after a listless 66-56 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 19, an outcome that could've been avoided with more toughness and leadership.

"It was like you told her that she was in a glass cage for the rest of her life,'' Lockwood said. "There was a key out there, but no one knew where it was.

"You don't know who to be mad at but you're mad. There were times when it really taxed Alex far beyond even what we knew."

Bjorklund is willing to share the floor with all of her junior classmates. In fact, she's encouraging them to join her.

By virtue of playing point guard, sophomores Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass might aspire to speaking roles, too.

Whoever exercises the right to free speech better back up their words with an honest effort.

"I think that part is hard for anyone, even if it does come to you naturally, because how do you tell someone you need to box out or you need to do this when you're not perfect yourself,'' Anosike said. "I think that's really difficult, but if people respect you and you're not trying to go 50 percent, you're going 100 percent every day, I think that makes it a lot easier."

Anosike, the locker room lawyer her last two seasons at UT, has been around this team the past few weeks while recovering from knee surgery. She occasionally took part in practice. She said that Bjorklund and Baugh are her leadership nominees. In Anosike's eyes, they have made the effort, and they have the strongest ties to Tennessee's last national championship season of 2007-08. As freshmen, they both played in the title game against Stanford. Baugh suffered a torn left anterior cruciate knee ligament during the second half. She had the same injury last February.

"I definitely have so much respect for her with two major surgeries in one year," Anosike said of Baugh. "How many people can really bounce back from that? I think the fact that she's going to be on the floor after two major surgeries like that is enough to earn anyone's respect."

Lockwood said that Baugh has been having a say during film sessions. Her on-court presence likely will correspond with her recovery. She pulled herself early on Saturday, but she's already logged enough practice minutes to have her moments.

During last Sunday's practice, she literally pushed freshman Faith Dupree out to her proper defensive position. Whether in or out of the action, she was demonstrative during a scrimmage session. Later, she was in the ear of sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer.

Bjorklund, meanwhile, has been offering glimpses of a more demanding nature.

"Once and awhile now, I've heard a little more edge in her voice,'' Lockwood said. "She's talking to somebody about something. Maybe a team she's playing on (in practice) they've gotten beat or something and Angie's voice will take on an edginess that I haven't heard.

"I don't think she's settled on it yet (but) I think she wants to be a voice more so than she's been."

If Bjorklund raises her voice, she will be speaking in a manner Anosike thinks no coach can match, not even UT's Pat Summitt. Anosike describes being yelled at by a teammate as "a whole other language" with the words hitting "a different part of you."

"Pat is not out there playing with you,'' Anosike said. "She is on the sideline coaching you. And when someone is out there at battle with you and barking at you it kind of puts you in a different place because someone you've gone to war with is someone that you don't want to let down because they're out there fighting with you."

Lockwood appreciates the separate language players speak among themselves. He considers the difference to be vital to a team's progression. In a past scouting report, he referred to a quote from former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer addressing this evolution.

"On any good team that I've been on,'' said Lockwood, referring to Schottenheimer's experiences, "there comes a point where the players take the wheel. I think he described it 'the players steer the ship.' There you go."

From Lockwood's perspective, coaches provide information, implement strategy and set standards. Eventually the team huddle breaks, however, and a referee motions the players to the court. At that point, the cause is best served by team leaders gathering together the rest of the players and essentially saying "we'll take it from here."

"There comes a point on good teams where that happens,'' he said. "And that's what we've got to wait and see with this bunch yet."

Dan Fleser covers the Lady Vols. He can be reached at fleserd@knoxnews.com.

Practicing good leadership might seem like a tall order but attention to detail can help shrink the responsibility down to size. From my vantage point, here's some observations that might help with the process.

Talk, talk, talk: One of the basic elements of leadership is communication. Since a player wouldn't think twice about practicing her shooting, why should talking be any different. Constant chatter should be second nature on the court as a way for players to connect and assist each other.

Do your homework: Psychological profile material on every player is readily available. The info is like a scouting report for a would-be leader wanting to reach a teammate. Use it.

Come together: When a teammate is getting chewed out in practice, rally around her. When going back to Pratt Pavilion for extra work, bring a teammate along. Players have told me this for two decades: When it matters most, all you have is each other.

Storytelling: Veteran players and coaches alike ought to share stories about past leaders. This could happen anywhere - at dinner, on a trip, etc. Whether these tales are funny or thoughtful, they're all instructive.

Get uncomfortable: Freshman Kamiko Williams and sophomore Alyssia Brewer need extra attention. A creative touch is advised, since both have been getting an earful from UT coach Pat Summitt. Their skills alone make these players a worthwhile project. Any lady volunteers?

- Dan Fleser

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Comments » 21

CTOWNICON writes:

I like Anosike's views on what she has been through and what she saw last year with this team. This team is going to be so much better this year. If all are healthy, especially Vicki and Kelly, to log in good minutes on the floor this will be a good year. Glad to hear they have improved. Glad to have my Vicki and my Kelly back!

xvolx writes:

Talk is cheap. We heard all this last year.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to xvolx:

Talk is cheap. We heard all this last year.

And you don't think they might have learned something in the meantime? SEVEN freshmen last year who are now sophomores aren't the same fresh-faced, pampered local heroes they were coming in. I agree they have a lot to prove in terms of upholding the Lady Vols legacy, but this IS a different year and there is no reason not to expect them to be better.

oldvolsfan writes:

in response to xvolx:

Talk is cheap. We heard all this last year.

open your mouth and prove you are stupid numnuts

xvolx writes:

in response to oldvolsfan:

open your mouth and prove you are stupid numnuts

I've forgotten more than you know.

dwa7#337691 writes:

still OCAN'T (UCONN) will be tough....probably another 39-9

KCHS63 writes:

in response to dwa7#337691:

still OCAN'T (UCONN) will be tough....probably another 39-9

Don't get too cute if you can't see the numbers on your keyboard correctly.

jorido writes:

Mr/ms XVOLX you have the right to be known as "being the negative expert" on every thread you produce. Thus perhaps you are correct - you have forgotten more about how to read an well-written article and appreciating life.

YankeeVol writes:

One thing about the article that I liked was the point that leadership is more than just yelling/screaming. There's being direct, then there is verbal abuse. I hope Angie (and others) can find the balance in a way that helps this team.

ladivolfan writes:

Go Lady Vols. Go ALL Lady Vols. You have worked hard to get here now play tough and wear orange proudly. I am proud of ALL of you.

YankeeVol writes:

in response to uconnsux:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

them's fightin' words
(said with the appropriate drawl)

xvolx writes:

in response to jorido:

Mr/ms XVOLX you have the right to be known as "being the negative expert" on every thread you produce. Thus perhaps you are correct - you have forgotten more about how to read an well-written article and appreciating life.

That's " a well-written article" and thanks for reading my threads.

ruggy writes:

ok first time post here ,to begain with I am 71 ..A very long time fan of the Uconn girls. sometimes I loke here and can`t believe what I read. Pat to me is one talented coach,one hell of a coach.sometimes I don`t agree with her style of play on the court,So what ,I not making the bucks she is.
A little disappointing the two teams don`t play each other anymore, I enjoyed the games.

I do think UCONN is by far the best team at the moment ,so was Tenn,these are girls and they do read these post,have feeling too

It`s hard for me as A UCONN fan to see some of the posts that so call UCONN fans make, UCONN fans are great people.

anyway sorry for the spelling it`s a old age thing

tennboy78 writes:

Even with tons of experience and having played with the absolute best players in the past, the upper classman leader still has to be able to translate that mental image to the new team mates. Alex was on an island last year, trying to draw an image for too many at one time.

I believe that Angie has grown into this gift. She may not have had it last year, or she may have deferred to Alex. But you heard her parting shot after the early exit from NCAA. Last year, we all saw too much inconsistency in mental toughness, but keep in mind that some amazing maturity happens in the off season with young people.

We have seen this evidenced many times over the years. The glazed-over eyes of youth change to focused lasers, and the competitive determination roots grow deeper. I believe that we will see an entirely new team, even though many of the same players have returned.

reachkim00 writes:

in response to uconnsux:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Great post and response and I couldn't agree more. Take all the negative phooey to the men's boards and post it there where it deservingly breeds phooey.

GO LADY VOLS!!!!!

reachkim00 writes:

And I didn't say phooey either!

GO LADY VOLS!!!!!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to ruggy:

ok first time post here ,to begain with I am 71 ..A very long time fan of the Uconn girls. sometimes I loke here and can`t believe what I read. Pat to me is one talented coach,one hell of a coach.sometimes I don`t agree with her style of play on the court,So what ,I not making the bucks she is.
A little disappointing the two teams don`t play each other anymore, I enjoyed the games.

I do think UCONN is by far the best team at the moment ,so was Tenn,these are girls and they do read these post,have feeling too

It`s hard for me as A UCONN fan to see some of the posts that so call UCONN fans make, UCONN fans are great people.

anyway sorry for the spelling it`s a old age thing

I'm glad you see that a good deal of the negative talk about UConn on here is instigated by a couple of singularly tasteless UConn fans. Speaking simply as a fan of good basketball, male or female, I love to watch the UConn women play. The not only have great individual talent, they play hard and they play together.

Now, Geno is a different story. He has made several fairly derogatory public remarks about Pat and is reported to have made several more in private or, what is worse, to recruits. I get it that he is a scrappy Northener who is trying to earn a place in the sun alongside, or ahead of, a Southern women's basketball legend, so maybe some of his talk is meant to be no worse than our current football coach's sometimes provocative rhetoric. The thing is, that kind of attitude doesn't come across well down here, even among some of our football fans, and when it is amplified by a few tasteless, classless UConn fans on OUR board...well, it causes some of us to lose our manners.

YOU and your sensible point of view are welcome on here. In fact, over the years we have had several UConn visitors who conducted themselves like ladies and gentlemen, and most of us enjoyed our correspondence with them. As for the programs not playing, Pat has said that Geno knows the reason. I suspect that neither of them has chosen to specify it in public because they both know that the reason--whatever it is, I surely don't know--would put GENO in a bad light. Until that issue is resolved, the most those of us who would like to see the two play each other can hope for is that they meet in the NCAA tournament, hopefully in the championship game.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to long_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I get what you are saying. What I am saying is that if Geno is using such allegations against Pat, it is up to him to admit it and present his evidence. If he wants to make charges and open up this whole can of worms, which could do no one in women's basketball any good, then he should do so and stop making "wink-wink, if you know what I mean" charges in secret to recruits.

I repeat, I don't KNOW if this is the case, but it would almost have to be something of this nature in the absence of any other public reason. Pat can't defend herself without giving SOME credence to the charges. Geno knows that if he were to go public with such charges, it would not go over well with a significant segment of his own fan base. That is why Pat has left it up to him to go public if he dares, IMHO.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to long_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Well, this just shows how rumors get started in the absence of real facts. I've gotta say, your theory doesn't sound that plausible to me, but clearly neither of us knows for sure; I know I don't.

johnlg00 writes:

BTW, long_vol, the Pokey Chatman incident involved improper contact between the coach and a player, not a situation such as you described. That was why I reacted as I did to your original post; that was what I thought YOU thought Geno was implying about Pat. See how complicated all this gets with no real information?

go_vols writes:

Why are so many Uconn hacks on this site? Buzz off please and find some other site to haunt. What's it with you people? Isn't it enough that you guys have the number one rank team to date. Show a little class. Be humble and stop criticizing our team. Go Vols.

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