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Monday, September 22, 2008
Willing Volunteer Spani

By Glenn Nelson
ESPN HoopGurlz

Much of the state of Kansas, particularly in the vicinity of Manhattan, is about to go into shock that the local star isn't staying home. And much of the rest of the country is about to settle into similar psychological turmoil that Pat Summitt, seemingly flush on the perimeter, extended her final scholarship in the 2009 class to a guard when she also had an elite post prospect on the hook.

But when the dust settles, it should become apparent that Taber Spani's commitment to Tennessee on Monday almost was an inevitability. She, after all, is a 6-foot-1 guard in basketball who is the product of hall-of-fame football genes, with a mindset and competitive nature to tackle huge obstacles to get where she believes she is meant to be.

So it was, a day after motoring 11 hours with her mother and father and three sisters from an official visit in Knoxville, Tenn., that Spani found in her heart the extra-special opportunity that would overtake playing at Kansas State, her father Gary's alma mater and the place her sister, Shalin, is a sophomore on the Wildcats women's basketball team.

"Our family is so close, our relationship transcends basketball," said Spani, who is No. 13 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred for 2009. "I've been my sister's biggest fan and she will continue to be mine, no matter where I play.

"I love challenges. I always wanted the opportunity to play for the best, with the best and against the best. The Tennessee (coaches) are exactly the kind of coaches I always wanted to be coached by. Tennessee is exactly where I wanted to be."

Taber Spani
Taber Spani chose UT over heavily-favored K-State.

As unexpected as Spani's decision may be, Summitt's may be more astonishing. She, after all, extended her third -- and last -- scholarship to Spani even though the Tennessee staff had a home visit scheduled this week with Kelsey Bone, the No. 2 prospect in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred. Bone also is the top available post prospect in what has been called the "Year of the Post," a position considered one of need for the Lady Vols.

Summitt's first two commitments in 2009 were from in-state players -- 6-4 post Faith Dupree, ranked No. 69 by ESPN HoopGurlz, and 5-11 guard Kamiko Williams, ranked No. 75.

However, Summitt apparently saw in Spani, the daughter of a former NFL linebacker and college hall-of-famer, and granddaughter of a hall-of-fame college football coach, the "it" factor that could contribute to Tennessee's tradition of excellence, defined by its eight NCAA national championships.

"Taber exemplifies the true meaning of a team player, unselfish; she is willing to involve her teammates," said Al Coleman, director of the Cy-Fair Shock club team for which Spani played last summer. "But like all great players, Taber is able to elevate her game to a higher level. She inspires her teammates to compete and can single-handedly change the outcome of a game. It was an honor and pleasure to have witnessed such great play from Taber this summer. She resides in Missouri, but her heart is as big as Texas."

Spani, who is homeschooled, plays for the Metro Academy in Lee's Summitt, Mo. She and Shalin Spani led the Metro Academy to the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championship three years ago. With younger sister Tanis, she helped Metro Academy to third- and second-place finishes the past two years.

Stacey Spani says her daughter has an "appetite for excellence," a fire obviously fanned by her father, Gary, who is the Kansas City Chiefs' all-time leading tackler, and grandfather, Frosty Westering, an iconic college-football coach who had four national championships and more than 300 victories at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

Taber Spani calls her father "the ultimate competitor who walks in such humility," and says the biggest lesson learned from her grandfather was his philosophy of "make the big-time where you are," which happens to be the title of his book. A master of mental preparation and motivation, Westering conducted so-called "Camp Frosty" during family visits and even conducted hour-long classes over the phone when vacationing in Hawaii.

"It's all about choice," Spani said of Westering's philosophy. "You have to choose to wake up every day and, no matter what is happening, you have to choose to make the day a great one."

Walking the walk, Spani has to awaken at 5:15 every morning, commute 40 minutes to the Tomahawk Dome in Shawnee, Kan., for daily two-hour workouts. After four hours of school, and 2 hours of homework, she returns to a local gym for another two hours of personal workouts.

Taber Spani
Taber Spani had a terrific summer and jumped up in the 2009 rankings to No. 13.

Spani did not play club ball the summer after her freshman year, trading a blip on the recruiting radar for extra work on her game with sister Shalin, who'd already committed to Kansas State. The two worked on individual skills, weight trained, played pickup ball against boys and participated in a speed, strength and agility camp operated by Paul Coffman, Gary Spani's college roommate and a former NFL tight end with Green Bay and Kansas City.

One of the routines introduced to the Spani sisters by Coffman was his old training ritual with Gary Spani of running 50 consecutive 40-yard dashes, with 15-30-second pauses in between. Taber and Shalin Spani promptly introduced the "50 Forties" to their high-school team.

"That went over really well," Taber Spani quipped.

That summer also is when Spani began adding a major component to her offensive arsenal -- one of the deepest and truest 3-point shots in the class. Because Shalin Spani was the shooter of the two, Taber previously had focused on playmaking and a slashing, rim-attacking style.

The three, combined with her almost WNBA-ready size, her strength and power in the gut of defenses, and her understanding of angles and anticipating plays, makes Spani one of the more versatile offensive players in the country. It was that combination that caught the eye of college superpowers and arch rivals Connecticut and Tennessee, both of which offered Spani a year ago.

Confident that she belonged on such a level, but worried that she needed to be seen, Spani sparkled at the Nike Regional Skills Academy in Houston to earn her way into the Nike National Academy in Beaverton, Ore. She also played for Cy-Fair, which she helped make the final four of every tournament it entered.

"I didn't think I needed to show I could play at the level because I've never placed limits on myself," Spani said. "I just felt that, if I could just be seen, everything would take care of itself."

Tennessee saw Spani almost by accident, coming originally to scout a club teammate. A little more than a year later, Spani went on an official visit already knowing that she was close to committing to the Lady Vols, but needing to meet their players to cement the deal. Then, during an 11-hour drive back to Lee's Summit, she, her parents and sisters Tanis, Sajel and Paris discussed and prayed over the decision.

Early on Monday morning, what the deeply spiritual Spani had known for a while became almost obvious.

"Going to Tennessee," she said, "was my calling."

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the McDonald's All-American and Parade All-American Selection Committees, he formerly coached girls club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.