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Angie Bjorklund makes her mark at Tennessee

Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund (5) is congratulated as she leaves the game late in the second half of Tennessee's 90-65 win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Sunday, March 6, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. Bjorklund scored 23 points for Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund (5) is congratulated as she leaves the game late in the second half of Tennessee's 90-65 win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Sunday, March 6, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. Bjorklund scored 23 points for Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

U-Hi grad’s days as Lady Vol player coming to end

On a nice day in Knoxville, members of the Tennessee basketball team have a pretty good idea where to find teammate Angie Bjorklund, the Lady Vols’ first player from Washington.

“She’s basically a tree hugger,” junior Lyssi Brewer said. “If it’s a bright sunny day we’ll go, ‘Angie’s climbing a tree today,’ because she loves the outdoors.

“She is definitely one of a kind. She’s a very spontaneous person. She’s all about nature, She loves to do stuff with nature.”

There is some truth to that, but in reality the senior from Spokane is more likely to be working on her game because there are only a few left in her career.

“I’m taking it day-by-day,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s kind of weird. The closer it gets the more sense of urgency I have just to get in the gym, get better, give my team everything I’ve got.”

That drive led Bjorklund to realize her dream of playing for Tennessee and Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt. The dream includes winning the 2008 NCAA championship her freshman year as much more than a role player, reaching 1,000 points for the most storied program in women’s basketball and becoming the Lady Vols’ all-time leader in 3-point baskets.

Bjorklund has made 300 3s and heads into the NCAA tournament on an amazing roll, making 16 of her last 18 from beyond the arc. That’s after sitting out six games because of a foot injury and playing sparingly in the next two.

“You hope you’re going to get what you think you’re going to get,” Summitt said of her long-distance recruit. “Every year Angie has improved.

“The fact she is holding the school record for 3-pointers speaks volumes. We’ve had some great, great players. … From the standpoint from her long-range scoring ability, she’s been the best in this program. To me that’s pretty amazing.”

Heather Mason, associate athletic director for strength and training, is a big fan.

“You get all prima donnas coming in here,” Mason said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s swimming or golf, they’ve all been the best of the best. They think they know what they got themselves into.

“Angie’s ability to increase in every category, physically, throughout her four years is truly amazing. Most athletes, you don’t want to see them plateau, but sometimes there are ups and downs. She has been consistently on the increase in every category.”

With a national championship, Summit’s eighth, and the relationship with coaches, teammates and new friends, Bjorklund said her experience is more than she expected.

“It exceeded my dream in a good way, but not like I thought it would,” she said. “Some of the experiences I had here were unexpected but ended up being a great thing. I loved it.”

After that national title came UT’s first-ever exit in the first round. It was the Lady Vols’ only elimination before the Sweet 16. That team had one senior, which thrust the most experienced sophomore into a leadership role, maybe prematurely.

“You have a picture-perfect way of how you think things will go,” Bjorklund said. “That wasn’t as picture perfect as I thought but the lessons I’ve learned … I’ve grown so much.”

“There were a few growing pains there,” Summitt allowed.

From that freshman high to the sophomore low, this fourth-ranked Lady Vols team (31-2) is only the third to go undefeated in the Southeastern Conference and win the league tournament.

“Her leadership has changed a lot,” junior Alicia Manning said. “I remember her being more of a leader by example. Now she’s a vocal leader as well.”

“Angie sometimes can come across as laid back, disengaged, aloof,” Summitt said. “You talk about just being a great teammate, Angie has the voice of this team. When she’s on the floor she’s passionate.

“When she went through the injury she was probably been the best cheerleader on the floor as well. The players have a tremendous respect for Angie. … She’s very special.”

Kris and Jim Bjorklund knew they were sending an independent daughter across the country, hoping she would be happy and they got more than they dreamed as well.

“The first time I went back there and saw her start I thought, ‘Wow, this is her dream.’ It brought tears to my eyes,” Jim said. “Seeing her on ESPN as a feature player in games you always used to watch because they are good teams. … It’s been a privilege just to be part of that kind of stuff.”

In many ways he still sees the same player he did when she was the Greater Spokane League’s two-time MVP and the state’s top player for two years at University HS.

“I don’t see a whole lot of difference other than her getting stronger,” he said. “I see that in a lot of (elite) college players. They play similar to their high school game but it’s more perfected.”

Different family members have various television packages so they can gather and watch most of her games, but a number of games are readily available.

“The whole community of Spokane has gotten into her dream of playing basketball back there,” Kris said, relating stories of being stopped on the street after one of Tennessee’s televised games. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

However, 18 family members converged on Nashville over the weekend to watch the Southeastern Conference tournament. Bjorklund made seven 3-pointers in the title game and made the all-tournament team despite coming off the bench.

Bjorklund was only the 10th freshman to start her first game at Tennessee and she’s started almost every game since. She averaged 8.4 points when she was voted the SEC’s top freshman. She has knocked down seven 3-pointers several times but the first came against Gonzaga, the first of a home-and-home series that allowed Jami and Angie Bjorklund to face off and Spokane fans to see the defending national champions.

Bjorklund was second-team All-SEC as a sophomore and was first team last year, when she passed 1,000 points. She’s at 1,448 points now, which is only 21st at a school that boasts 35 members of that prestigious club.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Bjorklund said of her accomplishments. “What really helps is being at Tennessee, being surrounded by the best players in the country. It makes basketball a lot easier. … When they’re triple-teaming Candace Parker my freshman year, triple-teaming Kelly Cain now, it opens a lot for me.”

She definitely found the perfect place for her single-minded dedication to basketball without losing sight of what it means to be a student/athlete – the psychology major was a first-team Academic All-American last year, second-team this year.

Summitt demands nothing less: miss a class, miss a game.

“She’s the most competitive person I know,” Bjorklund said of her coach. “She just loves winning. If I had one word, it would be intense. She creates an environment every day in practice.”

That is the Summitt that gives chills with her stares – even to those watching on television – but Bjorklund added, “She’s very genuine but very witty. She’s so smart. She’s a great coach. She’s a great person. I respect her a lot.”

The all-time winningest coach in history passed 1,000 wins when Bjorklund was a sophomore. She has created almost a cult, dressed in orange, that follows the team in hordes.

“The Northwest has always been big on basketball but not like Knoxville,” Bjorklund said. “It’s definitely different. It seems like a home game wherever we go.”

And that’s the norm for everything.

“I’m a sports fan,” Bjorklund added, “but not like the people in the South. People love their SEC sports. I’ll go to a game and look around, they’re just crazy about their sports. It’s a fun environment.”

Her preference really is hiking and with the Smoky Mountains nearby, she could see herself as a coach in that part of the world once her professional playing career, here or overseas, comes to an end.

“She’s one of a kind,” Mason said. “She’s just Ang. There’s no one like her and we probably won’t see one like her. She’s very casual in her everyday life but when you put the Tennessee gear on her, she’s not casual at all. I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to train her. Tell her mom and dad thank you for sending her here.”