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No. 10 Tiger women begin road swing

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Seniors and four-year players Kelsie Sorenson and Traci Keyser have easily played the most games in the Tiger uniform for any current Fort Hays State University women's basketball player.

The first two years, Sorenson and Keyser played for squads that finished around .500 and in the middle of the conference. Last year, the Tigers rose to 20-9. This winter, FHSU is 10-0 (2-0 MIAA) and ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division II for the best start in school history.

With this season, Sorenson has noticed a team that expects to win and has strong team chemistry, keys for the Tigers leading the nation in scoring defense and scoring margin.

This weekend, FHSU has the first two games of a difficult stretch that could vault the Tigers near the top of the national rankings and keep them in first place in the MIAA.

Fort Hays has five of the next seven games on the road. Many of the squads are perennial powerhouses and ranked in the top 25 or near the national rankings. One of the two home contests comes against Washburn University, No. 6 in Division II.

"I think we have got a good road team," coach Tony Hobson said.

"A road team, you have usually got to have some inside power and not rely all on outside shooting, which we certainly don't, and I think good defensive teams have a better chance to win on the road."

The stretch starts Thursday against MIAA newcomer Northeastern (Okla.) State University (6-4, 1-1 MIAA). Game time is 5:30 p.m. in Tahlequah, Okla. Riverhawks coach Randy Gipson is 275-125 all-time with seven national tournament appearances and no losing seasons.

"It's time to find out," Hobson said. "It's here. It's what we have been working for, and it's time to get after it."

On Saturday, FHSU will travel to Emporia State University (5-4, 0-2 MIAA) for a 1:30 p.m. start. ESU remains the lone conference team that's been in the league for more than one season that Hobson has never beaten in his five-year tenure.

"This weekend will be a real tough one," Hobson said.

Before the season started, Fort Hays held a team meeting and talked about goals.

"From right there, our goal is to make it as far as we can," Sorenson said.

Sorenson said the first practice after the goals meeting "everybody turned it up a notch."

"It hasn't backed down since," Sorenson said. "That's when it really took effect."

Last Saturday, Fort Hays rolled to another big win with a 96-58 non-conference home victory against South Dakota School of Mines. It was the Tigers' first game back from holiday break. FHSU held a single-figure lead for nearly the first 13 minutes, and then opened the score.

"It's really important for us at this point to get conditioned to where we were, because I think it was obvious tonight, we are not quite back and that's understandable," Sorenson said after the contest. "I am more focused and more excited than I have ever have and I think everybody, especially Traci, is the same way, because it's not like we are going into games feeling, 'I hope we win this.' It's 'We are going to win this.' It's a different mindset and that's makes all the difference."

The game again showed Fort Hays' chemistry. Five players scored in double figures. FHSU had 25 assists on 35 made baskets.

"It's easy to get a team to have good chemistry when all of your kids are just good, solid kids," Hobson said. "You can tell by the way that we play that they're unselfish. We don't care who really scores."

Sophomore center Kate Lehman, the team's leading scorer, rebounder and the nation's top shot blocker, finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two assists. Junior Katelyn Edwards, the squad's second-leading scorer and rebounder, had game-highs with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior Melissa Nelson, third on the squad in scoring, collected 15 points.

"We have got our leading scorer giving Kate Edwards three layups in the second half with nice, dump passes," Hobson said. "We have got Mel, who can drive or shoot it. She had a couple of nice passes. When you have kids like that, I think the chemistry thing is going to naturally happen just because they understand what it takes to win. They are unselfish. It's not who gets the credit. It's just the end result that they are after."