Katie Burrows understands there are certain pressures that come with being a high school sports star who chooses to play for a college close to home.
It's a message the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball coach made sure she delivered to former Bradley Central standout Anna Walker, who is preparing for her freshman season with the Mocs. Burrows provided that viewpoint even as she recruited Walker, who helped the Bearettes win the 2019 TSSAA Class AAA championship.
"I told her that she's going to be under a microscope all the time, no matter what, because you are around so many people that have followed your career and do know you and do have an expectation of you," said Burrows, who prepped at Lookout Valley before playing at UTC from 2000 to 2004. "So I laid that out to her."
Could it be, though, that Walker is built for such pressure? That the 6-foot-1 forward from Cleveland was made for this type of situation, and that her decision to join the Mocs reflects that?
Pressure? That came prior to her junior year at Bradley, when she tried out for and made the Tennessee Flight, which is based in the mid-state region and is one of the top AAU teams in the country. On its website, the organization bills itself as "the premier girls' basketball travel program of the Southeast since 2005" and lists multiple former players who were McDonald's All Americans, some of whom went on to the play for the United States' national team or in the WNBA.
Earning a spot with the Flight helped Walker's recruiting process tremendously. According to the team's website, nine of 12 members of the signing class of 2020 who played for the Flight Silver committed to Division I programs, including Walker.
Pressure? That's playing for the tradition-rich Bearettes, who used a last-second shot to win the 2019 title to cap Walker's junior season, their first state championship since 1976 but the sixth overall for a program with two more appearances in the title game and dozens of state tournament berths dating to the 1920s. Although she didn't shoot well from the field in Bradley's three games in the 2019 state tournament, Walker had 12 blocks and five steals.
Tradition also played a role in her decision to sign with the Mocs, who after winning a share of the Southern Conference regular-season crown last season now have 22 regular-season SoCon championships, 18 conference tournament titles and 15 NCAA tournament berths.
For the extended Walker family, being part of a winning program didn't start with Anna. Her father, Bart, grew up in Sparta, where White County High School's boys' basketball program won back-to-back state championships in 1998 and 1999 — Bart's brother Brad was a member of the first title team — and the girls went to seven state tournaments in the 1990s, finishing as runners-up in 1991 and 1992.
So when the Walkers were looking for a place for Anna to play in high school, Bradley became an easy destination.
"Being on a winning team is important, because it gives you a winning culture and a winning mindset," Anna said. "Coming here (UTC), I always want to win. I've always been a part of a team that wins consistently, so that's a big deal for me. And it's a mindset, honestly: I want to win; I want my team to win.
"If there's one person on the team like that, it fuels everybody."
Her last Bradley team returned to state with hopes of repeating as champion but lost to Lebanon in the quarterfinals, which turned out to be the final round played in the tournament before the TSSAA shut down competition in mid-March as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and did not complete the event. Walker didn't play in the game, getting injured during a walk-through practice for the Bearettes at UTC's Chattem Practice Facility ahead of the trip to Murfreesboro.
So when the Mocs begin their season on Nov. 25 at Tennessee State, the Walker family will be there to watch Anna play for the first time in nearly nine months. Whatever pressure she might experience, she will have support to counter it.
"We're fired up," Bart said Wednesday afternoon. "We're pleased that she's at UTC, and we can't wait to see her on the team. We understand that it's a transitional year for her, an odd year for the COVID environment, but she has me, (Anna's mom) Julie, and she's got four other built-in siblings that are her biggest cheerleaders, and we can't wait to see her get on the floor and go."