The Lady Vols are in a league of their own—and this year's team might be its best yet. Here's how they made it happen.

by Betty Bean

Faces bright and expectant, resplendent in orange sweatshirts and jackets, planted in front-row seats slap behind the Tennessee bench, two 13-year-olds watch 11 tall women going through warm-ups. Melissa Klopfenstein, a 7th-grade forward averaging 12 points per game, follows Chamique Holdsclaw's silky glide to the basket in the lay-up drill. Keeshia Smith, an 8th-grade point guard with a 20 point-per-game average, fixes her gaze on Kellie Jolly, who is pumping in a dead-on series of nothing-but-net three-pointers.

Tipoff is at 2 p.m., and the girls have been up since 4 that morning when Melissa's dad, Bob, got them out of bed and piled them into the car to drive down to Kentucky. They were a good distance from their home in Jackson Center, Ohio (near Toledo), before the girls were awake enough to start asking what's the rush, and Bob finally owned up that they were really going to Memorial Coliseum in Lexington to see the back-to-back national champion Tennessee Lady Vols play Kentucky. They arrived early enough to claim the best seats in the house.

What other team, Melissa is asked, would she endure such hardship to see?

She looks incredulous.

"You mean if there was no Tennessee?" she responds, clearly too polite to answer with the big "Duh" the question deserves. There's nothing but orange in her hope chest.

The two Ohio girls aren't the only budding stars who have traveled a long way to watch the Big Orange dismember the Big Blue. A quick cruise around the crowd turns up young players from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and points beyond—many in Pat Head Summitt Basketball Camp T-shirts—who hope to find letters from Summitt in their mailboxes one day. A half a generation ago, girls like these would have more likely found their aspirations in the pom pon squad than on the hardwood court.

A small but significant segment of the audience is composed of a talented few high school players who have already caught the discerning eye of Lady Vol recruiting coordinator Mickie DeMoss. Foremost among the future prospects is Shalon Pillow, a stellar post player from Taylor High School in Addyston, Ohio, who signed with the Lady Vols last November and has driven over with her parents to preview her future. At almost 6'4", she is tree-top tall and jaw-droppingly lovely. She walks over to the bench to greet DeMoss in front of Melissa and Keeshia, who have brought along a camera in hopes of getting some post-game shots of the team.

Coach Summitt's Lady Vols have become a genuine sports phenomenon that has helped lift women's basketball to new heights of popularity. They're inspiring new generations of women players, especially with stars like the Fab Four freshmen known as Meek, Meek, Ace, and Tree (Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall, Kristin Clement, and Teresa Geter), who account for more than half the team's points, blocks, and steals. In the world of women's basketball, they're "America's Team." And—all hype aside—they've achieved it through superb coaching, stellar recruiting, academic excellence, and great athletes.

That Kid Can Play!

DeMoss is a little bitty black-haired dynamo who stands knee-high to most of the players she recruits. She is known—hands down—as the best in the business. A native of Delhi (pronounced dell-high), Louisiana, she played point guard at Louisiana Tech, coached and earned a masters at Memphis State, and called Summitt in 1979 for advice before accepting the head coaching job at Florida, thereby becoming the youngest head coach at a Division I school. The two had gotten to know each other at USA Basketball trials.

"Men in the coaching profession call it a fraternity, so I guess for women, it's a sorority...I was straight out of college, and she's three or four years older than me, but already she was a legend. We hit it off, and when I went to Florida, that gave us a bond...I turned to her and asked—'Am I too young to do this?' I was 23."

The Florida gig didn't work out—she calls it "a learning experience"— and in 1983 she resigned to accept a position as recruiting coordinator at Auburn where, in two years time, she built a reputation as a great recruiter. When Summitt's longtime assistant Nancy Darsch resigned to accept a head coaching job at Ohio State, Summitt asked DeMoss to consider coming to Tennessee. DeMoss was torn:

"We'd had two really good recruiting classes back-to-back, and Tennessee was a little down, by their standards..." She talked to Auburn head coach Joe Ciampi, then took a weekend to check out the scene in Knoxville.

"Once I got here, I thought, man, this would really be an opportunity for me. If I can convince people to come to Auburn, Alabama, surely I can convince people to come to Knoxville, Tennessee—bigger city, better location..."

Still, it was a hard choice. Auburn had just signed Vicky Orr, who would become a three-time All-American and lead the team to three consecutive Final Fours, challenging Tennessee for the title in 1989 (the year the Lady Vols won their second national championship).

"I had recruited most of those kids on that team and felt a lot of pressure that year," DeMoss says.

Recruiting is a deadly serious, often viciously competitive enterprise governed by strict NCAA rules. The process starts with rating services and summer tournaments, as well as word-of-mouth, and kicks into high gear during July when three of the four Lady Vol coaches—Summitt, DeMoss, and Holly Warlick—hit the road, attending 25 different tournaments and all-star camps.

"We have to target which camps and which kids we want to see. We start looking early, and by the time they're juniors, we've targeted players that can help us. We zero in their junior year."

Five years ago, at an AAU tournament in Chattanooga, she zeroed in on a skinny girl whose musical name "...had been floating around a little, and when I was watching the New York Liberty Bell team, she just put on a show. Probably 25 coaches were there, and everybody's jaws just dropped open. I thought, 'This kid can play.' She weighed 20 pounds less than she does now, and was wiry, lanky, and a little out-of-control. I said 'Pat, [you've got to see] this kid from New York...' We'd never signed a kid out of New York City. 'We're surely going to give it a shot...'"

Once she was a junior, Tennessee could start sending her mail. Then, Summitt and DeMoss put in a call to Astoria, Queens, for the head coach at Christ the King High School who was on his way to his fourth consecutive state championship (This year, Christ the King is rated the number one high school team in the country).

Impressing the coach was important, but the person Tennessee really had to win over was Chamique Holdsclaw's grandmother, June Holdsclaw, with whom she has lived since she was a small child.

"The key was selling June. Chamique's grandmom is a huge influence in her life. June is from Alabama and loves the South. That helped amazingly. June had talked to Chamique about what the South was like, how much she loved it and one day hoped to go back...That opened Chamique's mind—'Hey, it's not all that bad.'"

Academics were high on June's list, too, so she was pleased when she learned that all Summitt's players who complete their eligibility have also graduated.

"Her grandmother was interested in discipline, and she liked Pat's brand of discipline. A lot of coaches use that against us; they say Pat's too mean, that she's a bear to deal with. But we don't hide it. We tell them she's firm but she's fair. If you can't handle the discipline, you can't come to Tennessee. We tell them that straight up, because they've probably been painted a pretty grim picture by other coaches. It's true. If you don't go to class, you don't play. You don't practice hard, you don't practice any more...

"We both went up there for the home visit, and Chamique's grandmother liked what she heard."

Clement, Randall, and Catchings, by the way, say they heard all the Tennessee badmouthing, but it had a boomerang effect.

"I definitely did hear that negative stuff," says Randall, who was aggressively recruited by Connecticut. "'They've got Chamique there, and you're not going to get playing time...' But Pat did her job saying 'This is what we could do for you at Tennessee.'"

"That stuff is a turn-off," says Clement. "You want to hear about Tennessee and only Tennessee. Tell me about your program..."

Geter, the top player in South Carolina, says she heard it more from other players than from coaches.

"They said I'd be coming to a program where I'd have to fight for scoring time, but I think that's the best way to go, if you want to be the best."

One year, DeMoss remembers, prize prospect Dana Johnson was visiting when Summitt kicked somebody out of practice.

"I thought 'Oh, Lord, we just lost one.' I went over and said, 'I hope that doesn't scare y'all too bad.' Dana's mamma said, 'Oh, no. That's why I want my daughter to come here. Pat won't settle for anything but the best.'"

Signing day is November 14, and schools can start making weekly calls directly to prospects July 1 before their senior year.

"The kids can call you as much as they want, and Chamique called me a lot, at least once or twice a week. We really hit it off, connected. She told me at the end of August—she remembers the exact date—'Mickie, I'm coming to Tennessee.'

"Well, November is a long time from August, so I said, 'Chamique, don't tell me that if you don't mean it.' I didn't tell anybody. I've been in the business long enough to know an 18-year-old can change their mind with the wind..."

That fall, Holdsclaw visited Penn State and Tennessee and canceled her other visits.

Today, she is being called the best player in the game.

"I don't think anybody thought she'd be as good as she is," DeMoss says. "She took her game to the next level. Lots of times, you don't know that's going to happen. You don't know what's inside a kid's head, and inside their heart—how they're going to make the head and the heart transition..."

Hitting the Books

Follow one of Summitt's athletes to the classroom and you'll find her sitting somewhere in the first three rows. It's a requirement. DeMoss gets them here and it's Kerry Howland's job to make sure they stay and succeed.

Howland, who was a UT swimmer as an undergraduate, a teacher in the Knox County schools, and then a graduate assistant in the department before she came on full-time in 1985, is assistant athletic director for academic and student life.

Her job is " take care of the student part of being a student athlete. That's a pretty big world. The bottom line of the academic part is to make sure that student athletes abide by eligibility standards and that they graduate. The student life part goes into career planning and placement, community outreach—life skills is what the NCAA calls it."

Graduation rate is a huge selling point with parents of recruits. UT's women athletes have a 90 percent overall for those who exhaust their eligibility, 100 percent for Summitt's basketball players who have done the same. The school year begins with a goal-setting meeting conducted by Howland and the coaches.

"We lay down the law about class attendance, mandatory study hall, tutorial guidelines, time management—structuring the little time they do have. They're to be students first, athletes second."

So far, this year's freshmen have done well, in part because DeMoss doesn't recruit players who can't cut it academically.

"We make it clear that's what's expected of them...I think Mickie has the luxury to really look at what kind of students the recruits are."

Howland came on full-time the same year as DeMoss and Warlick—"exactly when the NCAA started spotlighting academics in athletics..."

She is proud that the program has never lost a player due to academic failure. NCAA rules set practice time at 20 hours a week, including conditioning, weight training, and films. Top that off with mandatory class attendance and mandatory study hall 6-10 hours a week (until a 2.5 grade point average is achieved and maintained), and it's easy to see that freshmen have very little time to get in trouble.

Howland also speaks of the "head/heart transition."

"This is a big adjustment for them, mostly because of time demands. My student life staff's biggest goal is to make that transition as smooth as possible..."

The Lady Vols are in the process of "adopting" Shannondale Retirement Home as part of their community outreach program.

"We think it's so good for our student athletes to see different parts of the community. We do a lot of community outreach, and I want to do more..."

Howland agrees with the rest of the world that this year's recruits are indeed special.

"I hear Pat and Mickie and Holly and [Assistant Coach] Al [Brown] say how much fun they are to coach, and I can totally relate, because that's the way they are academically...We got to be a Rolls-Royce program that can attract this caliber of student athletes through a lot of hard work—when you work with Pat Summitt, you work hard, or you don't last long..."

Meek, Meek, Ace, and Tree

It is December 12, and an Alberta Clipper has plunged Knoxville into a deep freeze that's seeping into cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena and raising goose bumps on Tamika Catchings' arms as she signs autographs for the fans lined up three-deep to see her. The freshman forward sharpshooter has just been a major contributor in a come-from-behind victory over Illinois, where her sister Tauja is a sophomore. Her mother Wanda is waiting to see her, and so are her father, Harvey, and her brother, Kenyon. Bags of ice are taped to her shins to ease her leg cramps, and her teeth chatter as she smiles and poses for upwards of 100 pictures. The police officer with her keeps asking if she wants to leave. She shakes her head and stays until she signs every last T-shirt, every drink cup, every hat bill, every poster and ticket stub and program that's put before her. Then she rises slowly and limps toward her family. She is 18 years old.

This year's "Fabulous Four" freshmen are making that head/heart transition. Jaguar-quick off-guard Semeka Randall is an effervescent personality whose passion for the game may make her the greatest Tennessee crowd-pleaser since Ray Mears put players on unicycles. Randall and Catchings were named 1997 co-players-of-the-year by Parade Magazine. Nancy Leiberman Cline, in a USA Today column on freshmen standouts, calls Catchings "the next truly great player."

Quiet, thoughtful Teresa "Tree" Geter is already the leading shot-blocker in the SEC.

Kristin "Ace" Clement, hindered by missing a month of practice due to a stress fracture in her foot, has just begun to show why she was the most-recruited point guard in America.

DeMoss calls Randall "a keeper the first time we saw her," and the coaches love to tell the story of how the Cleveland, Ohio, standout, who committed to Tennessee early despite being intensely recruited by UConn's Geno Auriemma, kept in close touch last year and agonized during the tough, early-season run when the team lost 10 games.

"She called either Pat or me or somebody about every day. She really became part of our lives...when we would get beat, she would call. She'd say, 'Y'all gotta start picking up the ball full-court.' I'd say we didn't have the depth. She'd say, 'When I get there, can I do it?' I'd say 'Sure, honey.'"

Randall, DeMoss says, is "...really special. She's the kind of kid that feeds off the crowd. I could not see her playing anywhere that did not draw big crowds. It would be such a waste."

Randall, by the way, remembers her phone calls a little differently: "I'd call Pat after a loss and say, 'Are you OK? You'll get 'em next time,' and I'd tell her to be positive and stay focused..."

Ace Clement, who made lots of unofficial surprise visits to colleges on her own, made the process easy for DeMoss and Summitt.

"Ace committed to us when she was a junior. She was the most sought-after point guard in country. We were just absolutely thrilled."

Summitt and DeMoss went up to Philadelphia (where Clement was on her way to breaking Wilt Chamberlain's high school scoring records) to see her play her junior year and went over to visit the athletic director at Villanova.

"We left a message for her, and the phone rang and it's Ace. We let her know we were going to be at her game, and her mom says, 'Ace has something to tell you...' We get on the speaker phone, and she says, 'I just wanna tell both of you I'm going to come to Tennessee.' We were just totally shocked and thrilled. We said are you sure? She said yes, and she told other coaches to quit writing her."

Recruiting Catchings was a different matter entirely.

"It was a strange recruiting situation," DeMoss says. "I saw her when she was a freshman, like Semeka, and I kept battling in my mind: 'Who's better, Catchings or Randall, Randall or Catchings?' But in the end, it's like comparing Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They bring different things to the table.

"When I knew we were in really good shape with Randall and Ace, I said there's no way we'll get Catchings. Then, I started hearing from other coaches, 'Catchings wants to go to Tennessee.' Unlike Semeka, she really wasn't a phone person. She didn't sound excited to hear from me—real noncommittal. We probably talked to her once every two weeks, where we spoke to Semeka every day. We'd get Tamika's mom on the phone and say, 'Are we even in the ballpark?' She'd say 'Oh, yes. She loves Tennessee.' We'd say, 'Can we narrow it down to five?'"

Two years ago, Randall and Catchings were on the Junior National team together and made a road trip to Brazil. DeMoss faxed them something daily.

"I'd hear back from Semeka—nothing from Tamika. We'd never hear from her, but we kept recruiting her, just stayed in there."

Catchings—who, like Holdsclaw before her, received the Naismith Award as the country's top high school player her senior year—was courted by a bunch of schools, and DeMoss worried most about Illinois, because Tauja Catchings plays there, and it's not far from the Chicago home of her father, former NBA player Harvey Catchings.

But Catchings now says she knew since 8th grade that she would come to play for Summitt.

Finding Teresa Geter was a true bonus point, says DeMoss, because her high school coach hadn't promoted her very much.

"I saw Teresa play in the AAU between her sophomore and junior year, and she blocked nine shots. I saw her jump up and take a shot out of the air. I thought, 'Man, I better stay here a little longer. This kid can play!' Her athletic ability, to jump up and knock a shot out of the air, her timing—phenomenal!

"Holly [Warlick] does a lot of recruiting out of South Carolina, so when I got Teresa's name, I said 'Holly, I want to turn this kid over to you...' Pat and I went over to watch her play in the state championship, and she put on a show..."

Geter, DeMoss says, is "very shy. She hasn't had the exposure the other three [freshmen] have had, but she is one of the most popular kids on the team."

So Tennessee has recruited maybe the best bunch of freshmen ever. So what does DeMoss do for an encore?

Enter Shalon Pillow and Michelle Snow.

"We thought we could use a little help on the inside. Shalon has great speed and good agility for a big girl. She's a very good rebounder and adds lots of size. I think she's going to be a very good player for us, a very good rebounder. Michelle is from Pensacola, 6'5" with a slender build. Talk about a shot blocker! Shalon is a power-type player, but Michelle will be more of a finesse-type player."

Only two? Connecticut has recruited a whole gym full.

"You can't get greedy," says DeMoss. "True, UConn signed a good class, but they needed a lot. We didn't need a lot. You go after these high school All Americans—they're not going to be happy sitting on the bench for too long. How do you compare their [next year's freshman] class to ours? In my opinion, there's no comparison. I just think this is a very special class—work ethic, maturity, they're the total package. It's an amazing class. They're inseparable."

Geter, whose suitemate in the dormitory is the ebullient Randall, confirms DeMoss' observation:

"I love all of them...I was feeling kind of down, it being my first birthday away from home, September 29, and I was kind of upset, and Semeka went and told Ace and Meek how I was feeling. Later that night I went to Tamika and Ace's room and they sang 'Count On Me.'"

"We put her in a chair and turned all the lights out, put a candle on the cake and sang to her," Clement says. "Count on Me."

Back in Lexington after the game, Melissa and Keeshia are collecting autographs. They get Ace, Tree, Elzy, Jolly, Stephens, the two freshman Meeks. They watch for Holdsclaw, and when a little boy comes through and says Chamique's already outside on the bus, the two girls hustle out of the building to look for her, Michelle's father leading the way.

The players believe they have a responsibility to their fans, particularly to little girls like Melissa and Keeshia.

"It's a great honor," says Randall, who used to write reports on the feats of superstar Cheryl Miller.

"Knowing that little kids are going to be out there, looking up to us, makes us practice harder," says Geter. "We want to represent good examples."

Catchings remembers mostly looking to male players for inspiration:

"Now, we're in the position where little girls are coming up and looking to us. People always considered us tomboys and stuff like that. It just shows how women's basketball is coming up."

"Yeah," adds Randall "It's a wake-up call. We're taking it to a new level for a lot of people."

DeMoss agrees.

"We'll never see another team quite like this one," she says. "We're going to spoil our fans. You can't clone a Holdsclaw or a Randall or a Catchings or a Geter or a Clement."