Knoxville TN – The Tennessee Lady Vols travel to Baton Rouge on Thursday night to play LSU which is coached by former Tennessee player and assistant coach, Nikki Caldwell. The game has special meaning to Tennessee head coach, Holly Warlick.
While the two coaches battled last season for the SEC Tournament championship in Nashville, which Tennessee won 70-58, Warlick and Caldwell join forces in the offseason to help others through their Champions For A Cause Foundation.
A native of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Caldwell played for the Lady Vols from 1990 to 1994, winning one NCAA title in 1991 and posting a 118-13 record under (then) head coach Pat Summitt and (then) assistant Warlick.
Besides being a player for Warlick, she also joined the Tennessee staff in 1998-99 as an administrative graduate assistant and returned from 2002 to 2008 as an assistant coach. The East Tennessee native is in her second year as head coach at LSU and spending the previous three years directing the program at UCLA.
Because Caldwell both played for and worked alongside Warlick, there is familiarity with each other’s philosophies and plans of attack.
“Any road trip is a challenge for us this year,” Warlick said. “It will be difficult to go against Nikki (Caldwell) because she knows what we do and we’re familiar with what she does. It will be a tough game and a tough environment.”
With her squad coming off its first SEC loss on Sunday to Missouri, Warlick cites both Mizzou’s play as well as a lackluster effort on her team’s part as the reasons for the setback – not the injuries that have beset the squad. LSU, though, also is dealing with starting players being injured.
“I think [Caldwell is] going to run,” Warlick said. “She’s going to press us and make us exert some energy. If I were in her shoes, I would probably do the same thing.
“I know Nikki,” Warlick continued. “She’s going to make us work for everything that we get and rightfully so. She had a big injury, too, with her guard, and I know she’s been bit by some other injuries as well. It’s part of this game and a part of what we have to deal with on a daily basis.”
As Warlick plans to bounce back from a loss, senior Taber Spani said Warlick kept the team’s attitude up after the Missouri game in the locker room.
“[Coach Warlick said] you just can’t take anything for granted,” Spani said. “She was obviously very disappointed – everyone was. We were disappointed and frustrated, but you have to get up and move on, and that’s what we did.”
Moving on to their next game, Warlick faces not one past player and colleague, but four in all with UT ties. Also on the LSU coaching staff is former Lady Vol Tasha Butts. Butts played for Summitt from 2000 to 2004 before she went on to play in the WNBA.
Assistant Coach Tony Perotti and Director of Video Operations Michael Scruggs also have ties to Tennessee. Perotti earned his undergraduate degree at UT while serving as a practice player for the Lady Vols. Scruggs earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Tennessee while playing on the practice squad under then-assistant coach Nikki Caldwell.
Besides the reunion of past Lady Vol players and staffers, this year’s Lady Vols have one goal for their business trip to Louisiana and that is to refocus their team and continue down the road toward being number one in the SEC.
No longer undefeated in the SEC, but still tied for the number-one spot stand the Lady Vols. They are stricken with injuries to key personnel but are convinced that not even these struggles will stand in their way.
After their 80-63 loss to Missouri on Sunday, Coach Warlick said it wasn’t the injuries that caused the loss; it was a lack of effort that her team is working rapidly to improve.
“We have to understand the importance of everyone on the team,” Warlick said. “When you play the way we did and have a loss like we did, we just didn’t play the way we should have. Now we’re just trying to get refocused.”
Keeping her head up is Missouri native, Taber Spani. She is ready to step into whatever position she is needed, including another position if necessary.
“We’re just ready to get back to work and get better,” Spani said. “We understand that what lies before us is hopefully an SEC trophy at the end of this – that’s what we’re after. This is what it looks like, no matter what it looks like, who can play, who’s on the floor, I don’t think any goals have changed.”
Spani says that bouncing back now after a tough loss is not an option to her team.
“You have no choice, you have to,” Spani continued. “We’ve got seven games left in our season and hopefully more than that. LSU is a tough opponent. LSU is a great atmosphere to play in and we’ve squeaked out two wins down at LSU since I’ve been here, so we’re going to have to be ready and be focused. Whoever is able to play that night will have to carry the load and I think everyone is ready for that.”
Following in the senior’s lead is sophomore Cierra Burdick, who just recently returned from a hand injury.
“I think we have the mindset of no excuses,” Burdick said. “In the beginning of the year, people kept saying that we were a young team and we were, but that is not an excuse. Right now we just have to deal with the injuries.
“We just have to bounce back,” Burdick continued. “We have to do all the maintenance work that we can to make sure we are preserving our bodies. We must compete to the best of our abilities.”
For both the loss in Missouri and their upcoming game against LSU, this team prepares to make no excuses and improve as best they can with every player that is available.
“We really tried to harp that this is a business trip and you can’t take anything for granted,” Spani said. “They’re going to play well at home. As long as we know that, I think we can grow from it and learn from it and we’ll be better from it. As long as we do that, I think we’re okay.”
As two starting players (Kamiko Williams, Isabelle Harrison) continue healing, their return date is not yet known. Until then, Warlick says she is being extra careful in practice and is making sure she has enough athletes to play the game.
“I have not [experienced this in my time coaching],” Warlick said. “I know it’s part of the game, but when you have three starters (Andraya Carter is out for the season) that are out with injuries, I just don’t have an answer for that. I’m thinking, I hope we have five people to compete. “
Heading to face LSU on Thursday, this no-excuses team is ready to redeem itself in the SEC, then return to Knoxville to play Ole Miss on Sunday. Following that game, they look forward to a week without a Thursday game (Feb. 14), allowing them to recover and regroup before they finish out their regular season.