From shy freshman to injured team captain, to leader and life coach, one Lady Vol has transformed into one of the most influential players to step on the court.
When Taber Spani moved from Missouri to play for Pat Summitt's basketball team in 2009, she wasn't ready for the culture shock that met her. The former homeschooler had never been placed in a setting quite like UT.
"I think the biggest thing and the biggest adjustment was understanding what it means to be with 11 to 14 other girls, coming together as a team with very different backgrounds and very different personalities," Spani said. "That's something that was a little bit foreign to me before I got here."
But the shock didn't just affect her. Senior guard Kamiko Williams laughed and said the team was aware of Spani's uncertainty.
"I think she was nervous every day because she didn't know what to expect," Williams said. "I mean, we have all these strong personalities and then you have someone like Taber who's been homeschooled and never really had to deal with a lot of people at one time who have personalities like we had. She was a little uneasy."
Williams, who has been with Spani all three years of her college career, said getting to know her teammate was well worth her time.
"Now that I know her, she's fun, she's fun to be around," Williams said. "She has a witty side, a sarcastic side that I have to tame a little bit."
Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said she wasn't sure what to think when she and head coach emeritus Pat Summitt first recruited the 6-foot-1-inch guard.
"I've never recruited a kid that's been homeschooled," Warlick said. "The minute that I talked to Taber on the phone and especially when I went into their home, I thought this is one of the most mature and unbelievable kids I've ever been around. She blew me away and blew all of us away."
Williams said she loves Spani's heart for others, her passion for her religion and her desire for serve and care for her friends and teammates. Williams said it's been amazing to see her stand by her faith regardless of the ups and downs the past three years have dealt her.
"That's something that I have a lot of respect for her," Williams said. "Being with the team that she's been with for the past three years and still be the person that she is and have her beliefs and stay strong in it, I have a lot of respect for her. She's my angel."
Spani said that the past three years have been full of positives and negatives, but all have been learning experiences.
"The last few years have been a lot of ups and down," Spani said. "Obviously I rely a lot on my Christian faith and that's what's sustained me and helped me get through it. As a college athlete you go through times of joy and times of ... challenges and I've had my fair share of both."
Some of those ups and downs have been injuries that left Spani benched for much more of her career than she had hoped. Thankfully, with a family full of athletes, Spani had role models to look to in the face of adversity.
Spani's dad, Gary, a former NFL linebacker, was the first person she turned to.
"Looking up to my dad first ... seeing how he walked through the injury route and understanding what that looks like and then watching my sister who'd been through seven knee surgeries, having those real personal examples who are literally a phone call away is huge," Spani said. "They've been super supportive. I've really appreciated that."
Williams said watching her through those trials has shown her to be a team player.
"I know she gets frustrated, but at the end of the day she always puts the team first," Williams said. "She tries to come out and do what she has to do to make this team better, whether that's on the floor knocking down threes or that's being off the court and just encouraging and just pushing people to play to their potential."
Williams said Spani's positive mentality is something she hopes to emulate in her own life.
"I'm trying to imitate her as much as I can, but it's a working progress," Williams said. "She doesn't get down about (her injuries). She prays about it and she leaves it in the Lord's hands."
Injured or not, Warlick said Spani never gives up.
"She always gives 100 percent," Warlick said. "She plays the game with reckless abandon and she does things right. She gets in here and she puts up all these shots."
But Spani's on-court performance and statistics aren't what draws people to her. Warlick said Spani never wavers in her faith, and her testimony of faith has rubbed off on her coaches and teammates.
"I understand her athletic ability, but the impact she's had on young kids lives and her character is phenomenal," Warlkick said. "What she does with going out to the community and with the university and her faith is so strong that it's just infectious. It rubs off on you. I love her to death and I respect her so much. She's a great kid."
Her attractive personality has made her a great influence on the team and put her in a leadership position. Starting the season healthy will add to her ability to support her teammates as someone to look up to.
"I'm excited this year hopefully to be healthy and to lead this team and I'm excited about the role that I'll have on this team," Spani said. "More than anything, I'm just really excited and looking forward to this season."
That leadership role isn't something Spani takes lightly. Spani said she has seen how crucial leadership is during her time at Tennessee and she can't wait to take the baton.
"With this young team, they need someone to look up to and show them that this is the way that we're gonna do it and we're not gonna back down from it," Spani said. "Obviously I'm not perfect, I make mistakes all the time, but I want to learn and grow in that. I want to be an extension of Holly on the floor. I want to do everything to help her be successful, and in turn help our team be successful."
For Spani, her team will always have a place in her heart.
"Honestly, whenever we leave here, wherever we go, we're gonna be family forever," Spani said. "That's just the way the Lady Vols do it. The friendships that I've developed are something that I take very seriously."
Williams is confident that Spani's love for the team is something that makes her unique and helps make her the best leader the team has. Williams was very decided in her love and respect for Spani.
"She's somebody that I would love to stay in touch with for the rest of my life," Williams said.