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Behind Lehman, Tigers emerge as national power

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University center Kate Lehman, the team's tallest player at 6-foot-4, started slowly in her freshman season last winter.

Lehman averaged four points and four rebounds a contest in her first 12 games. In the first four MIAA contests, she collectively tallied six points, nine rebounds and two blocks and struggled against physical play.

However, Lehman improved tremendously in some 1-on-1 training with then-assistant coach Carrie Hofstetter during the 2011 holiday break. In her first game back, Lehman delivered a breakout performance -- and has quickly emerged as one of NCAA Division II's top players.

"At the beginning, I could barely even catch the ball without falling over in the post. I have improved quite a bit, too, on going up strong and having a good base," she said last winter.

On Jan. 2, Lehman finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and 26 minutes in a 69-63 road victory against Truman State University in Pershing Arena. Then Lehman scored at least eight points in every game the rest of the season, had eight double-doubles and broke the single season school record with 96 blocks. In more than 20 years, coach Tony Hobson said he had never had a player improve so quickly during the season than Lehman.

Fort Hays finished 20-9, the program's most victories since 2005-06. Lehman eventually earned third team all-MIAA honors and was named to the conference's all-defensive team, while forward Katelyn Edwards collected second team honors.

This season, FHSU has started 9-0 and climbed to No. 10, the highest ranking by the Tiger women in the school's NCAA era. Lehman's and Fort Hays' rise is one of The Hays Daily News Top Stories for 2012.

"We saw (Lehman) earlier in the year in San Antonio in the South Central Challenge (in November), and she has gotten so much better in the last 15 games, it's unbelievable," Pittsburg State University coach Lane Lord said in midseason last year.

During her rise, Lehman nearly set a conference record last season. On Feb. 18, in a 67-58 victory at Missouri Southern State University, Lehman tallied 28 points and 17 rebounds, both career-highs. The rebound total tied for 10th all-time for a single game in FHSU history.

"It was a very good performance and at the same time, if you look, we had 23 baskets scored, 18 of them had an assist, so there was a lot of good passes going in there, timely, to her, and then she obviously finished it," Hobson said.

Lehman made her first 13 shots and finished 13 of 14 from the field. She missed a jumper with 1:08 left.

If Lehman had finished 14 of 14 from the field, she would have broken the conference record for most field goal attempts without a miss. The field-goal percentage record for a game is 11 of 11 by Central Missouri's Tracie Morris in a Dec. 6, 1991 contest against Delta (Miss.) State.

Entering holiday break this season, Lehman leads the team with 18.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and paces the country with 4.6 blocks per contest.

"You are seeing just the difference in Kate this year with her additional strength," Hobson said. "It's not like she is the strongest kid on the floor, but she is so much stronger than she was. She is able to take that pushing and all that stuff and still score. She had a great game tonight. Was very efficient."

Edwards has posted similar numbers to last year and has averaged 13.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and is tied for the team lead with 28 assists.

Fort Hays leads the country in scoring defense (46 points allowed per game) and scoring margin (plus-31.0). FHSU is off to the best start in school history and the nine-game winning streak is the longest during any span since a 10-game run in a 21-7 season in 2005-06. That included a 95-50 home conference victory against University of Central Missouri on Dec. 5 when FHSU started the game on a 34-1 run. Against MIAA opponents, it marked the Tigers most points scored and largest margin of victory.

"I am pleased with how we have not taken anybody lightly," Hobson said. "We have came ready to play every game regardless of who it was or where it was, and I think that is just a great trait to have is just always show up and play the game. We have played on the road now a few times. We seem to travel OK. We are not easily intimidated."