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Tiger women picked to finish fifth

Published on -10/25/2012, 9:59 AM

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By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Last season, the Fort Hays State University women's basketball team enjoyed its best record since the program switched to the MIAA. The Tigers went 20-9 and 12-8 in conference play for a fifth-place finish.

However, fifth-year coach Tony Hobson sees an improved squad this winter -- and one that could compete with the league powerhouses in the new-look 15-team MIAA.

"I am hoping just a little bit of experience," Hobson said of the differences between last season and this winter. "Last year, we had three new starters in our lineup and didn't really know what our league was about. I think as we went on, we got a little better. Maybe just a little bit more knowledge about that and a little more experience."

On Wednesday, Fort Hays, with four returning starters and three players who have earned all-conference honors, was picked fifth in both the preseason coaches' and media polls.

Washburn University, last season's regular season champion, narrowly edged out Pittsburg State University, who went to the Elite Eight last year. Emporia State University, a NCAA tournament team last winter and a longtime top-25 program, stands third.

Northeastern State (Okla.) University, one of the league's newcomers, is coming off its third straight season of at least 25 victories and a NCAA tournament loss to Pittsburg State, was picked fourth.

"I think we will have a little more depth this year, that's always important," Hobson said. "Our conference is a grind, and the road trips are tough, especially on us. We spend more nights in hotels than anybody else by far."

Hobson said FHSU is already "a couple weeks" ahead of where his past Tiger teams have been at this point in preseason practice.

"This time of the year, that's huge," Hobson said. "It's not even close."

Fort Hays opens the season next Thursday with an exhibition at Kansas State University. The first game is against McPherson College on Nov. 10.

In late October last year, Fort Hays' transfer Katelyn Edwards was just coming off back surgery, and her health and durability were question marks. Hobson said the team was "trying to figure out" how to use 6-foot-4 freshman forward Kate Lehman. Guard Melissa Nelson had missed nearly a year after knee surgery.

Now, Edwards, a junior, is coming off a second team all-MIAA season where she led the team with 14.6 points and eight rebounds a game. After a slow start, Lehman played very well after Christmas and finished second on the team in points (10.7) and rebounds (7.1) and set a school record with 96 blocks. She collected third team all-conference and was named to the MIAA all-defensive team. Hobson believes Lehman's scoring numbers could improve, but her blocks could decrease.

"Last year, everybody was just going at her and going at her and going at her and just kind of testing her and she blocked a lot of shots because of it," Hobson said. "I think this year maybe as people gain some respect for her, I think they won't challenge her quite as much."

Fort Hays graduated three players in reserves Kimber Weiser and Janel Durler and point guard Crista Bechard, a two-time all-MIAA honorable mention selection. Bechard, known for her steady play, led the team in assists and was one of the nation's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"The real concern that we had coming in was replacing Crista Bechard," Hobson said.

Four newcomers -- junior college transfer Tera Ingalsbe and freshmen Taylor Chandler, Beth Bohuslavsky and Hays High School graduate Paige Lunsford -- have impressed early and should see significant time. Ingalsbe will play inside, while Chandler, Bohuslavsky and senior Kaiameka Brown will handle the point guard duties. Chandler and Bohuslavsky combined to win six state championships in high school.

"I think all four of them have looked good, and they have fit in well," Hobson said.

Nelson, known for her scoring ability, averaged 6.4 points per contest in 16.8 minutes of action in an up-and-down season. A senior, Nelson looks improved this winter.

"Looks like a totally different player than she did last year," Hobson said. "She has fully recovered from her knee surgery from the prior year, so that's kind of an added bonus for us right now."

Seniors Kelsie Sorenson and Traci Keyser also return. Sorenson, known for defense, rebounding and intangibles, has started for two years. In 2010-11, Keyser led the team with 11.2 points per contest and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range. Last season, her scoring dropped to 9.7 points and she shot 31.5 percent from beyond the arc.

"She looks fine," Hobson said. "I think she is shooting the ball as well as she ever has. With her and with shooters in general, it's a fine line from being a confident shooter. You have a few off games, and you start doubting yourself. You don't know if you should be shooting it. You've got to just have a short memory and a clear conscience when you are going to be a shooter."

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