Pat Summitt no longer patrols the sidelines at the University of Tennessee, but the school's women’s basketball fans received a 6-foot-5 security blanket last month when post player Mercedes Russell said she planned to sign with the Volunteers.
Russell, from Springfield, Ore., is considered the top player in the 2013 class. The last time the Volunteers signed the top recruit was in 2004, when they landed All-USA Player of the Year Candace Parker, a player Russell greatly admires.
"I just have a great relationship with the coaches at Tennessee," Russell said. "I've always followed Tennessee since I was little because of Candace Parker."
Russell, who averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds and five assists last season in leading Springfield to its second consecutive 5A state title, leads the Preseason American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Basketball Team.
From the time she began playing "Itty-Bitty Ball" in the first grade to middle school, she was a guard. As she grew from a 5-11 freshman to a 6-3 sophomore, and then to 6-5 last season, her game continued maturing as well. She still retains, however, much of the ballhandling and passing skills she learned as a guard.
Springfield coach Bill Wagner, then at North Eugene High, coached against Russell her freshman year.
"There were some things she was very good at, but she would give the ball back pretty easily if you pressed her," Wagner said. "We had to work on her footwork. She was a great passer and she could handle the ball, but offensively, she had to get more aggressive."
Unlike recent girls basketball phenoms such as Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Chiney Ogwumike, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne, who were well-known as freshmen in high school, Wagner said Russell didn't get much recruiting attention until she put up 38 points and 19 rebounds in a state tournament game her sophomore year.
She gained even more attention while playing USA Basketball the past two summers. Her junior year, she pulled down 15 rebounds in a game for the USA U16 squad. Last summer, she led Team USA in blocks, was second in rebounding and third in scoring as it won the U17 World Championship.
"Players like Mercedes don't come around very often," Wagner said. "Especially in the Northwest, where's there's not as many players."
As the recruiting attention mounted, Russell wanted to make sure she did a thorough search. To pay for unofficial visits to colleges, she raised money selling pizza coupons and other items door-to-door.
"Her family isn't blessed with a lot of resources," Wagner said. "And she's not allowed to accept straight donations. She had to fund-raise for everything. This is a girl who has truly earned where she's at today."
After making visits to Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky, Oregon State and Washington, Russell chose Tennessee on Oct. 30. She sees herself playing power forward or center for the Vols, but first she's hoping Springfield can win a third consecutive state title, something Parker was unable to do in high school.
"I think with the players we have coming back, we can be in a position to win again," Russell said.
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.