Lady Vols get ready to run this season

Heather Mason starts a sprint drill

Preseason means strength and conditioning for the Lady Vols, and Inside Tennessee was on hand for one of the team's tough workouts at the indoor football facility. Go inside for story and video coverage.

It was still dark outside with storm clouds gathering when the Tennessee players gathered inside the indoor football complex on campus this past Friday in the predawn hours. A heavy rain pounded the roof midway through the grueling workout, but the voice of Heather Mason easily filled the facility.

Preseason means Mason, the strength and conditioning coach for the Lady Vols basketball program, has the most weekly hours with the players as court time with the coaches is limited by NCAA rules.

Head coach Holly Warlick held two one-hour full team practice sessions last week, and the team will gather again this Tuesday for another court workout at Pratt Pavilion.

"Everybody is good," Warlick said. "I haven't seen any signs of letting up. They are sore from conditioning and working out and they should be this time of year. It is a time when we're going to get them in shape."

Only one player was held out last week and that was freshman guard Andraya Carter because of a mild left ankle sprain. She is expected back possibly this week and at the start of official practice on Oct. 8 at the latest.

"We are not pushing it," Warlick said. "We need her for the long haul. Most definitely (back for full practice). I'd be surprised if we didn't."

Tennessee will limit court time to two total hours this week – with an emphasis on defense – before plunging into full-time sessions next week, something Warlick is looking forward to with her first team.

"I am. Absolutely," Warlick said.

The segue is from individual workouts – no more than four on the court at one time – to full team in limited sessions of no more than two hours a week to official practice where the team can take the court for two and three hours several times a week.

"They dovetail off each other," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "You need the early work for concepts, fundamental work based on position and then just to get some team things in.

"That is where the smaller groups really help because anytime you can make a group smaller, you're going to get a better teaching environment. So that helped. …

"The early part is very good but then there comes a point where you are just ready to graduate and progress a little bit. These have been very good (full team) because we can get people together, and we can work on five-player timing of things. The first two have been more offense emphasis, so just getting our spacing, our timing, things you can't do with two, three and four players. You need five."

In the meantime, Mason still gets to spend the most time with the players and her session last Friday included pushing weighted grocery carts the length of the football field, pulling plated weights via a rope the same length, human wheelbarrow races – Kamiko Williams is outstanding at this and can scoot on her hands faster than most people can walk – grueling sprint sessions and very spirited tug-of-war battles in which players square off one on one.

The best battle was between Williams and Isabelle Harrison, who eventually prevailed and got a high five from Williams afterwards.

Harrison, while just a sophomore, has embraced the role of most-experienced post after a freshman season spent playing limited minutes in a supporting role.

"I think it is definitely confidence," senior guard Taber Spani said. "She got a year to learn under those seniors, and I think that probably hurt her confidence a little bit just because she wasn't getting playing time but when you're playing behind an All-American and a first round WNBA draft pick, that's hard.

"I think her confidence level is so high now because she realizes that she really needs to step up."

Junior guard Meighan Simmons nodded as Spani spoke, and the two sometimes finished each other's sentences when discussing Harrison.

"She has a higher responsibility," Simmons said.

"Absolutely. And we're relying on that," Spani said. "She has stepped up to that challenge, and she has got herself ready."

Harrison has earned kudos from her teammates for how she has helped true freshmen posts Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore.

"Definitely," Spani said.

"She really is," Simmons said.

"Especially in practice, she'll just take them aside and kind of give them a little one on one, ‘OK, let's tweak this, do this. This is Dean's language. This is how we do things,' " Spani said. "I think she has been a great leader for them."

"She leads by example," Simmons said. "Her attitude is just totally different, and I feel like now with a higher responsibility there are bigger expectations, and I feel like she wants to live up to the expectations so she is going to talk more and lead by example.

"If she sees something that one of the younger post players isn't doing, she tries to explain it to them in a manner where she couldn't understand her freshman year but now that she has a year under her belt she can sit there and take what she's learned from her freshman year and hand it over to them."

Simmons noted that Graves has been a pleasant surprise among the freshmen. Graves couldn't attend first session of summer school because of USA basketball training camp. She made it to campus in July but had to leave again in August to join the USA team, so she had very limited time with her new teammates, most of which went home in July after going to summer school in June.

"I feel like all the freshmen have surprised me, but Bashaara, it's been a major adjustment," Simmons said. "She was a little nervous when she first got here but after she got the first workout, she was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I got it now,' and she got in the flow of it."

Spani added, "They've all impressed me, though it's not only their talent – because we definitely are impressed by that – it's just their attitude. It's their willingness to work. There is no complaining.

"They just come in here and do the work. I think that's very refreshing to see people who literally and genuinely just want to work hard."

"They are humble," Simmons said.

Simmons noted that during her first two years on campus, the players could sometimes lose focus in practice.

"They are so quiet to the point where it's like they are focused on what they need to do or what the task is at hand," Simmons said.

"I love that focus," Simmons said.

Williams is one of the players who can keep an atmosphere lighthearted, and Simmons said the freshmen smile at her and manage to still stay focused.

"Even with Miko around," Simmons said. "They laugh and look at her and they're like, ‘Oh my God, there goes Miko.' When it comes to basketball, it's totally different.

"Off the court they can act goofy and do what they want but when it comes to on the court – and that's what I love about our freshman – we can push them as much as we can but they've come in with their own hunger. We don't have to discipline them as much."

That doesn't mean they don't occasionally falter. Freshmen are bombarded with new terminology, the demands of college on and off the court and conditioning sessions with Mason that are designed to push them to the brink.

"You'll have times like that, but it's never for a lack of effort," Spani said. "That is the thing we are most proud of.

"We are all going to make mistakes and I can deal with you not understanding something or missing a turn (on a sprint) because you aren't used to it, but when it's a lack of effort, that's when I am going to get on you. I haven't seen that, so that's fun."

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Lady Vols workout

Heather Mason

Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani

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