Tiger women look to keep momentum going

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Junior forward Tera Ingalsbe is in her first season with Fort Hays State University after she transferred from Cloud County Community College. She has never faced University of Nebraska-Kearney, but is excited for Saturday's home matchup against the Lopers.

"I heard a lot of stuff about Kearney," Ingalsbe said, breaking into a wide smile. "I know what rivals are, and everyone knows it in the community and in the school."

Fort Hays and Nebraska-Kearney, longtime rivals, are back in the same conference for the first time since 2005-06.

The following year, FHSU left the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for the MIAA. This fall, UNK departed the RMAC for the MIAA. Fort Hays, receiving votes nationally, is 15-5, 7-5 MIAA, while the Lopers are 6-13, 3-9 MIAA. Game time is 2 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Since 2006-07, FHSU and UNK have met once a season in non-conference play. This winter, the teams will meet twice, this Saturday and the following Saturday in Kearney.

"It's just such a natural rivalry," coach Tony Hobson said. "We have so many Nebraska kids that we recruit in that area. I know their coach reminds me of that whenever I see him, (saying), 'Hey, could you leave me a couple of Nebraska kids?' But I just think it's a great thing, because so many of these kids have a lot of relatives, and a lot of people coming to that game when we go up there."

The Tigers lead the all-time series 42-35. A victory Saturday would cap a 4-0 homestand -- and continue a trend of beating lower-tier teams. Junior Shelby Zimmerman paces the Lopers at 11.1 points per game.

"I don't think it's going to be a big change since we have been playing them once," Hobson, a former player and coach at Hastings (Neb.) College, said. "But I go back farther than anybody with Kearney. I was playing against Kearney in the '70s, and it was a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd every time we played them."

Under Hobson, Fort Hays has suffered at least one loss to a lesser squad per year.

Last winter, Fort Hays went 20-9 and 12-3 at home for fifth place in the conference. The Tigers finished 10-2 against opponents lower than them in the standings, including a bad overtime home loss to Lincoln (Mo.) University.

"Just getting the little wins -- it does look good on our record when we beat the Washburn and the Pitt (State), but we have to beat the little ones," Ingalsbe said.

FHSU is tied for sixth in the 15-team league.

The Tigers remain in contention for a top-four seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament partially because it's taken care of business against teams lower in the standings. Fort Hays is 10-1 at home and 6-0 against MIAA squads beneath the Tigers in the standings. Hobson believes a 5-1 mark in the final six games would probably put Fort Hays in the top four.

"A win is a win, and you cannot afford to give them up, especially at home," Hobson said. "You've got to just take care of them, and we've got to just take care of Saturday's game, because then we go on the road for three."

The three straight home victories have brought plenty of good news for the Tigers. First, junior Katelyn Edwards has reemerged as one of the league's top players alongside sophomore center Kate Lehman, the team leader with 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. Edwards, who averages 13.4 points and 8.5 rebounds, has collected 18.3 points and eight rebounds a game on the homestand.

"She is kind of picking her chances, so she is going good right now," Hobson said. "If we can just get everybody moving along with her, we will be in good shape."

She has aggressively hit the glass and drove hard inside. As well, Edwards has made her free throws -- a point of emphasis -- with 19 of 21 shooting in the last three games.

"I don't know how she does it, the drives that she gets and the stuff that she does," Ingalsbe said.

This week, senior guard Melissa Nelson had surgery on her knee and could return before the end of the season.

"Mel's surgery was great," Hobson said. "She started rehab (Wednesday), and we will see what happens with that as it goes along."

Most importantly, Fort Hays collected three victories against teams below it in the standings. Earlier in the season, FHSU led the nation in scoring margin. So far, the Tigers have won the three games by six, seven and 12 points.

"The teams in our conference just steadily get better and better and better as the season goes along," Hobson said. "I think we were closer to where we needed to be earlier in the season than a lot of teams, and you might have seen some bigger margins then, and while I think we are playing fairly well right now, I don't think we have improved as much as those other teams primarily because we didn't have the margin to improve."