Pat Summitt's Tennessee basketball team has been a picture of consistency for the last three years. Although the starting lineup has changed somewhat in that time, the team has lost only two players — one to graduation, one to transfer — since the Lady Vols' 2008 national championship season.
Throughout the years of this seemingly unfazed roster, though, Vicki Baugh has served as an unwitting reminder that even the most durable teams must face their share of challenges.
Baugh entered the college arena in 2007, along with then-fellow freshmen Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone. And for a while, the Sacramento, Calif. native looked as though she would fit in perfectly. She played in all 38 of the Lady Vols' games that year, reaching double-digit marks in both scoring and rebounding several times, en route to Tennessee's eighth national championship.
The national championship game wasn't a moment of happiness for Baugh, though. She tore her left ACL in that victory over Stanford and underwent surgery to repair it.
Baugh was able to recover quickly, returning to the 2008 squad, and entered the starting lineup for the first time during the Lady Vols' Nov. 21 game against Chattanooga, and she played a significant role through the first half of the season.
It was clear, though, that Baugh's knee would become the bane of her career. She tore her ACL for a second time in December 2008, something that caused her considerable stress.
"I had a breakdown, I admit it," Baugh said, recalling her reaction after trainer Jenny Moshak broke the news. "It's very hard coming back from (an ACL tear), and knowing I have to go through it again? I was pretty out of it."
This time, the injury was so severe that the coaching staff elected to use a medical redshirt on Baugh for her junior year. Despite the redshirt, disaster struck Baugh again when she tore the meniscus in the same knee in January, forcing her to start the long process of rehabilitation over again.
"Every year, it's a little something," she joked.
But the injuries haven't been a laughing matter for Baugh — far from it, in fact. They've been a source of huge frustration for her, as she's forced to sit on the sidelines for games and practices and watch as the highly touted squad she was once a part of continue to grow and meld as a team — without her.
Despite this, Baugh, a senior in psychology who will be pursuing her master's degree over the next two years, says that the injuries have not negatively impacted her growth.
"It does affect me, but I'm not going to say it affects me negatively," she said. "... I am planning on coaching in the future, so I get to see it from their standpoint.
"Not being able to play, all I can do is watch, all I can do is help (the team) by being a leader off the court at the moment, so I think it's going to help me in the future, and I think it's a positive aspect to when I coach, hopefully."
Although Baugh hopes to one day watch her teams from the sidelines voluntarily, her days on the court are far from over. She's played in ten games so far this season, and while she says her chemistry with the team is lacking, she believes she will be back to full strength by the postseason, which she says is the only time that matters.
Summitt agrees, saying it's all about being smart with Baugh right now. The coach wants to remain overly cautious with Baugh to make sure she can get back to full health this year.
"A healthy Vickie Baugh will really change what this team could be all about," Summitt said. "I mean, she brings a lot of great things."
Plus, Baugh kind of likes the idea of being a secret weapon.
"I'm not playing the basketball I used to play right now," she said. "And if teams are scouting, and they see me right now, they're not going to be expecting me to have the game I'm going to have (in the future)."