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Gators' Hayden rebuilt for speed

Published Sep. 10, 2005

It was one of the first questions Florida coach Carol Ross was hit with during preseason interviews.

"How many minutes can you expect from Vanessa Hayden?"

A legitimate question, even considering the season Hayden had as a freshman.

She was selected to the All-SEC Freshman team after finishing second in the conference in rebounding (9.2 per game) and blocks (2.27). She was tied for third in the league in double doubles and set a Florida freshman record for blocks with 68.

But youth and an inability to adjust to the rigors of college basketball hampered Hayden.

Simply put, she wasn't in good enough shape. And it was costly to her and the Gators. Hayden averaged 18.4 minutes in 30 games.

"There's no question we need Vanessa on the floor and playing more minutes this season," Ross said. "That's something we have to have."

Knowing her presence in the paint would be crucial for the Gators, Hayden went on an all-out fitness campaign.

It has worked. Hayden had 21 points and 27 rebounds in an exhibition Monday night, setting the stage for what she and the Gators hope will be a big season for the sophomore from Orlando.

"Vanessa is a force inside," Ross said. "She's our go-to player and she is a great rebounder."

"Big V," as she is called by teammates, has lost 28 pounds and become a slimmer, healthier version of her former self.

"My nutritionist and I, we both felt like if I wanted to lose weight, if I wanted to run the floor and get up and down the court, I couldn't eat chips every night," said Hayden, who is candid about her struggle. "I couldn't eat five bowls of pasta. I need a lot of protein in my diet. We both came to that decision at the end of the season last year in order to keep me in shape."

At the end of last season, the 6-4 Hayden weighed 245 pounds. Today she is 217 with a goal of making it to 200. It has changed the way she moves and approaches the game.

"I feel trimmer," she said. "My clothes are looser and my jersey. When I'm out here, I am able to move swifter. I'm not as slow as I was last year."

Florida opens the regular season Friday against Oakland. With senior guard Brandi McCain a primary focus on the perimeter for opponents, Hayden will need to find a way to be a force inside.

Hayden led the Gators in rebounding 14 times and was one of three players to play in every game. Her preseason performance seems to signal that she's primed to step up.

"It's really a combination of her going through that freshman season and realizing what it takes to play, not just at the collegiate level but the top-10 level," said Ross, who is entering her 12th season as coach. "Spring and summer is really when players become better. She kind of recommitted to her conditioning, she spent a lot of time watching her diet and getting extra cardio work in, just trying to make more of a commitment to her game."

It might sound simple, but for Hayden it was anything but. With the help of sports nutritionist Michelle Rockwell and strength and conditioning coach Karin Werth Spence, Hayden got a planner and mapped out her daily meals, including what to eat and when. She now eats three meals a day, leaving out the in-between snacking.

She gave up cookies and chips in favor of crackers. The greasy, tasty soul food had to go. So did the extra sweet fruit drink. She still tries to meet with Rockwell once a week, when the two put together Hayden's grocery list.

"It has been really hard because I come from a family where we just eat," Hayden said. "But I know I have to do this for my team."