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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Putting the VOL in volume

By Dave Scheiber

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of this 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- At one end of cacophonous Thompson-Boling Arena, the University of Tennessee pep band is pumping out a brassy, pedal-to-the-metal rendition of "Rocky Top" that has whipped 12,000-plus Lady Vols fans into a familiar frenzy.

But the high-decibel bluegrass classic and unofficial UT fight song has nothing on the Meanie Heads -- not on this rainy Tuesday night in Knoxville, or on any night.

As always, sisters Raubyn and Donna Branton are at the opposite end of the building, rocking the top off.

"Wooooooooooooo!!!" shrieks Donna, 48, in a shrill, rafter-rattling voice that pierces the arena's din like a laser-guided missile.

Vicki Baugh, Tennessee's talented 6-foot-4 center, has just found the net to pull the Southeastern Conference's best team closer to a formidable foe from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Miami.

"Vicki BAUGH-BAUGH, Vicki BAUGH-BAUGH!!!" bellows Raubyn, 49.

They chant the nickname in unison, happily oblivious to the several rows of stone-faced visiting fans in front of them who are doing their best to block out the nonstop aural assault.

You can find the sister act whooping and hollering in their usual spot, about a dozen rows up from the floor, in the heart of enemy territory. They sit and stand here in the midst of the visitors section at every Lady Vols home game to display their undying support for the team and iconic head coach Pat Summitt.

That, however, is only part of their mission. The Brantons, with their tousled blond locks, brazenly loud orange getups and unabashedly loud displays of delight -- or dismay -- are out to get under the skin of unsuspecting opposing fans. Armed with that mission, they have named themselves the Meanie Heads -- and become an institution at these games.

As for Raubyn and Donna, it's hard not to notice them in the crowd with their orange prison jump suits. There's been many a time they've caught my attention as I've walked out onto the court for a game and I've heard them holler, 'Go get'em Pat!'

-- Pat Summitt

In their own way, they do this with an intensity and passion that mirrors the unparalleled efforts of the legendary coach and the program they adore, inside a building that ranks as the toughest women's basketball arena for visiting teams in the nation. For the record, the Lady Vols have forged a mark of 343-20 in Thompson-Boling, aptly nicknamed "The Summitt" after the woman who has won eight NCAA championships and 31 SEC regular-season and tournament titles, and entered her 38th season at the helm with an NCAA-record 1,072 victories and counting.

On this evening, as on many others, Raubyn and Donna are sporting authentic orange prison uniforms that Donna bought on eBay. The backs are printed with institutional-style block lettering that reads "PAT SUMMITTORIUM," and the rear ends with "Tennessee." On occasion, they've been known to don referees' garb or orange scrubs (to symbolize wiping up the floor with the opponent), and they'll debut their new two-piece prison garb next week against Middle Tennessee State.

In any outfit, the Meanie Heads are the live-wire nerve center of Tennessee women's basketball fandom. They're no more devoted than countless other fans of the program. They're just louder. This Sunday their vocal cords will be put to the test when 20,000-plus are expected to pack the arena for a game against No. 1-ranked Baylor. Fans will be wearing "We Back Pat" T-shirts en masse to support Summitt, who revealed in August that she's dealing with early onset dementia.

Chances are the Branton sisters will be venting over officiating, getting into jawing matches with visiting fans who don't show proper respect for the home team and organizing a loose conglomeration of fellow Meanie Heads to serve as unofficial enforcers of the Lady Vols spirit.

"I love all of our fans and the tremendous support they show both at home and on the road -- it's a great source of pride for the Lady Vol basketball program to have such dedicated and loyal fans," Summitt says.

"As for Raubyn and Donna, it's hard not to notice them in the crowd with their orange prison jump suits. There's been many a time they've caught my attention as I've walked out onto the court for a game and I've heard them holler, 'Go get'em Pat!'

"No doubt about it, they put a smile on my face every time."

Don't ask them to quiet down

Hearing Raubyn and Donna describe their approach is entertainment in itself. They pour on their natural Tennessee drawls, riff off each other's sentences and coat their comments with dry, tongue-in-cheek humor in nonstop, pro-Pat patter. But they mean business, too.

"If a fan for another team comes into our arena and says something about our players, it's on," Raubyn said. "It never comes to blows or anything because we can out-verbalize 'em."

"Raubyn did do a chest-bump with one person," Donna chimed in cheerily. "And my husband pulled me back by my shirt collar one time."

Most of the time, however, the sisters just cheer like crazy. And if it annoys out-of-towners in their presence, well, that's all the better.

"Opposing fans give us the turnaround, google-eye look and don't say anything to us -- usually," Donna said.

"We don't like the google eye," Raubyn said. "It just makes it worse."

Generally, the sheer volume and pitch of Donna's scream -- imagine a referee's whistle directed at your eardrums from close range -- takes care of things by itself.

"Normally, with my voice, people don't typically make it in front of me," Donna said.

"Because they leave," Raubyn offered on cue.

"But ah'm not tryin' to make 'em move," Donna continued, adopting a tone of utter reason and down-home sincerity, as if it's all beyond her control. "I just get really loud, and they give me the look and then they move."

So how did an accomplished architectural designer and a respected children's social worker morph into the wildest and craziest fans in the Lady Vols universe?

We found the answer earlier that same afternoon, about an hour's drive up Andrew Johnson Highway in the town of Morristown. Hang a right into the downtown parking lot of a pleasant two-story building -- and enter a hub of hopes and dreams for Tennessee women's hoops.

The '98 team got them hooked

It's about 2 p.m. on game day and Raubyn is sitting at her desk, mapping out the intricate, computerized lines of the latest building design her boss has envisioned.

Each wall of her office is adorned with Pat Summitt and Lady Vols paraphernalia, from pennants and autographed championship basketballs to team posters and countless photos.

Donna has gotten off early from her job as case manager for Cherokee Health Systems, where she works with troubled children and families to help them integrate what they learn in therapy into their daily lives.

She's arrived in full orange regalia, planning to carpool with Raubyn in her Chevy truck and get a jump on the afternoon traffic into Knoxville. With an early 6 p.m. tipoff and rain drenching eastern Tennessee, there's not a lot of time to spare.

Their story began here in Morristown, where the Brantons grew up. Raubyn played tackle football with the boys in her neighborhood, and later tried her hand at basketball. "But I was way too aggressive," she recalled. Her natural talent for drawing carried her through Morristown East High and on to the University of Tennessee.

Donna, on the other hand, had no interest in mussing up her hair and playing football with the boys. "I was the girlier girl of the two -- the Barbie doll player," said Donna, who followed her older sister to Tennessee in the early 1980s.

Neither paid any attention to a certain up-and-coming women's basketball coach, who started guiding the Lady Vols in 1974 at the age of 22, gradually building an incomparable foundation. Their chief sporting interest was the football team. Their studies kept them busy, with Raubyn majoring in fine arts and Donna in psychology.

They graduated in 1985, two years before Summitt would win the first of her eight NCAA titles. "Women's basketball just wasn't real prominent when we were there," Donna said.

So when did the lightning strike, pulling Raubyn and Donna into the basketball fold like a magnetic force they couldn't resist?

"When I saw Semeka Randall, No. 21, play for the first time," Raubyn said. Randall was a freshman on the national championship team in 1998, the final year of the fabled three-peat run of titles. Raubyn and Donna were hooked after the '98 season, and began buying season tickets the next year.

Along with Tennessee fans across the land, they were drawn to the talented players and jaw-dropping success directed by Summitt, who was taking the women's game to new heights. Donna glances up at a glass display case to a pair of bobbleheads. One is Tamika Catchings, an All-American from the triple title run who went on to WNBA stardom with Indiana. The other: Pat Summitt. "Where's my Pat?!" Donna exclaims, grasping the figurine. "I love her."

Raubyn had her first encounter with Summitt after the '98 championship and was struck by the coach's integrity. "She looks you right in the eyes, and you can't help but be truthful with her," she recalled. The wide-eyed, newbie fan stood in a long line to get autographs from the coach and Randall (now the head women's basketball coach at Ohio University), and presented three sweet-potato pies to her favorite player at the signing table.

"I said, 'Here, I baked these pies for you,' and Pat was sitting beside her and said, 'Did you really bake those pies?' And I went, 'No, ma'am, I bought 'em frozen and stuck 'em in the oven, but here they are.' That's what I mean about her!"

The Brantons rapidly became Summitt fans of the highest order, hanging on every twist and turn the team took. Even with all the winning, bad calls by officials always infuriated them. They'd shout and fume, venting their emotions on behalf of the more contained coach.

And that was the genesis of the Meanie Heads.

"Pat wasn't calm by any means, but she wasn't as irate as we were," Raubyn said. "So we formed our club. And whenever anything went wrong, we'd go down there and take care of it for her."

In other words, shout, scream and torture the poor referee who'd made the call. Raubyn tapped her artistic skills and designed an official Meanie Head badge. And the two of them concocted a list of 10 official Meanie Head rules required for induction, such as being able to stomp your feet while yanking off your glasses. "If you don't wear glasses, this is not a problem," the bylaws state. "Just act like you do."

Or Rule No. 2: "A Meanie Head is THE Lady Vol fan. A Meanie Head is THE Pat Summit fan. A Meanie Head does not have to like the song Rocky Top, but the Meanie Head must act like she/he likes it."

And so forth, all the way to Rule No. 10: "Always remember -- it's not just a ballgame. It's a religion."

Now it's 3 p.m., time to hit the road for the 50-mile ride to Knoxville. Raubyn is a little concerned, even though the Lady Vols have not lost a game at home since falling 62-54 to Duke on Feb. 16, 2009.

"I hope we're gonna see a W, but it's not a good matchup for us," she said. "'Cause they've got a tandem of good guards, and we're having a little trouble with guards. It'll be tough."

"We're just so spoiled," Donna said. "The 'L-word' is incredibly difficult to deal with. If we do lose, my husband makes himself very scarce, because he doesn't want to be around me for a while."

Even Pat and the players know them

Once inside the massive Thompson-Boling parking garage, Raubyn and Donna head for the bustling arena cafeteria for their traditional pregame meal. The dining hall is a sea of orange, with fans of all ages donning school colors as they banter about the evening's powerhouse matchup.

Before long, Raubyn and Donna take their seats just behind the visitors section, where they can stand guard and protect the team's honor in classic Meanie Head fashion. Spectators smile and wave at the sisters, who are well known to the Lady Vols players and to Pat Summitt herself.

One time, the coach approached them after a practice and asked their thoughts. "We couldn't give her a proper answer -- we were just too starstruck," Raubyn confessed.

At the SEC tournament last year in Nashville, Lady Vols standout forward Alicia Manning spotted them in the lobby of the team hotel, where they also were staying. "She came up to us and said, 'I just want to shake your hands -- I've been dying to meet you!'" Donna said.

Now, just before 6 p.m., Manning and her teammates are about to be introduced to the excited crowd. The arena lights go down, and a big boom and a bright flash signal the grand entrance of Summitt and her troops.

"LET'S GO, LADIES!!!" Donna yells in spine-tingling style.

"Rocky Top" is blaring and the house is rocking. But Miami has come to play. The Hurricanes are setting the pace, jumping to an early 16-13 lead. Tennessee settles down to go ahead 36-29 in the final minutes of the half, but somehow the Canes tie it 42-42 at halftime.

"First half went exactly as I expected -- this is a quick-guard team and we never do good with quick guards," Raubyn said. "But we're gonna get a W."

"But a TAH???" Donna blurted out. "Ouch! We're used to being so ahead. I mean seriously ahead."

Two fellow Meanie Heads, Kelly Newton and Amy Loveday, weigh in. "It's been an exciting game, but I think we're gonna come back and take it," Newton said. Asked about Raubyn and Donna, she stops to think for a moment. "The word that comes to mind is unique," Newton said, while a smiling Loveday moves her pointing finger in a circular motion beside her head, and mouths the word "crazy."

A few feet away, another Lady Vols fan, Robert Hedgepath, UT Class of '63, settles into his seat. The retired lawyer from Venice, Fla., has driven 120 miles from his second home in North Carolina to catch the game, one of many he takes in each season. He's also enjoying the Raubyn & Donna Show.

"I sit here with 'em week after week, and they're loud, that's for sure -- and faithful," he said.

Hedgepath stays in touch on "The Summitt," a popular message board for Lady Vols fanatics and a place Raubyn (a.k.a. realtallshorty on the board) posts links to her many homemade videos paying homage to Summitt and the team.

He likes the sisters, but he knows better than to referee any of their shouting matches. "I don't get involved, no way!" he said.

The Miami fans are remarkably controlled. They ignore the good-natured ruckus behind their backs, and look on solemnly as the Lady Vols gradually pull away in the second half en route to a solid 92-76 victory.

"Well, like Raubyn said, we got a W," Donna said. "That's a very good thing."

"We got out-rebounded -- Pat's not gonna be happy," Raubyn said.

They head to the center of the arena with hundreds of other devotees for another tradition: Summitt's postgame interview from the court, where, as always, she thanks the fans for coming out.

The Brantons follow the rest of the hard-core fans to the exit, aglow in something that had happened not once but twice that night.

"At the very beginning, when Pat entered the floor, she looked up and smiled at us and gave us a little wave," Raubyn said. "And when she left the court and walked past us, she did the same thing."

"That just tickles us to death," Donna said.

In the world of the Meanie Heads, it doesn't get any nicer than that.