Jaime Nared put time, effort and travel into preparing for her role as a leader of Tennessee's women's basketball this season. Hard to understate the travel part.
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The Lady Vols senior forward visited Vietnam this summer as part of her year's membership in the VOLeaders Academy. She and other UT athletes worked with children in orphanages there, among other activities.
Fitting then that an early test of Nared's Lady Vol leadership involves a trip to Mexico, where she will be helping usher Tennessee's four freshmen and the team through three games in three days at the Cancun Challenge.
The No. 12 Lady Vols (3-0) open against No. 20 Marquette (1-1) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.Nared struggled to make a shot Monday against Wichita State, missing everywhere from the rim to the 3-point arc in going 3-for-16. Still, she logged a full 40-minute shift because coach Holly Warlick felt Nared's presence was vital in the dicey 68-56 victory.
"Jaime didn't shoot the ball well, but I thought her defense and rebounding were solid," Warlick said. "I thought her leadership on the court was solid. We needed Jaime out there to calm everyone down."
Haven't been that team
Nared did a lot of listening during her academy stint, asking other Tennessee athletes about what their teams did to create a sense of togetherness and mutual support. She joked about football and its "5,000 meetings a day."
Seriously, though, she occasionally found herself thinking "Wow, we don't do a lot of things that different teams do" and sometimes concluding: "OK, they're a team. In comparison, that's not how we've really been."
"We haven't had that leadership where the five people on the court are together when things are going downhill," Nared said. "We really haven't had that leadership where all five people are working hard in the gym. We just haven't been that team, a team."
Proud to have two #LadyVols in the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 30!— Lady Vol Basketball (@LadyVol_Hoops) November 15, 2017
Catch 'em tonight at 7 (vs. JMU) & Monday at 7 (vs. Wich. St.) at @TBArena!! pic.twitter.com/8ThLLoJbca
Nared was referencing the past two seasons, which have been marked by inconsistency, which she attributed to lack of leadership.
Her freshman season was a different, better story. Tennessee won 30 games in 2014-15 and, despite losing leading scorer Isabelle Harrison in February to a knee injury, came within a few baskets of reaching the Final Four.
Harrison and fellow seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale, who had been chastened by unrealized team goals their first three seasons, convened a strong leadership trio. They were hard workers and invested leaders, serving as mediums for Warlick's message.
Spurred by their guidance, Nared recalled that team's competitiveness, remembering how the Lady Vols erased a 17-point second-half deficit for an overtime win over Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
"They were always the voice on the court; that's big in teams," Nared said. "We battled. We battled my freshman year."
Center Mercedes Russell was a sophomore that season. She was sidelined after undergoing offseason surgery on both of her feet. Russell, who attended an SEC leadership council this summer, has joined forces with Nared. Her influence was reflected by her thoughts about UT's wayward shooting on Monday.
"Just staying positive and telling everyone that it's going to be OK," she said. "Then just getting it back on the defensive end. We had a couple big steals and big plays. I think that really just helps our energy."
Like Nared, Russell's leadership responsibilities will require her to step outside of her normally quiet self. At this point, she doesn't seem burdened by the role. She's not carrying extra baggage with her to Mexico.
"I'm just going to lead the freshmen as best as I can," she said. "I think they have been doing well these past couple of games. They will be just fine."
They're all ears
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Nared believes that she and Russell can't just talk a good leadership game. The role involves more of the listening that served Nared so well this summer.
"The biggest thing with myself and Mercedes this year is being leaders who can listen as well as lead," she said. "When people have questions. When they are telling certain things that they notice. To do both of those things."
By Nared's thinking, good listeners are players teammates can approach and hopefully trust.
"You can say anything to me," Nared said. "You can yell at me. I really don't care how it's said to me. If you have something to say, just make sure that it's said. We need to get it fixed, whatever it is."
Sounds like she's developed a good ear for her role.
This article is written by Dan Fleser from Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tenn.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.