Tiger women look to make next leap
By CONOR NICHOLL
Tony Hobson always knew the Fort Hays State University women's basketball team would break through. It nearly happened in his second season when FHSU won 15 games.
However, the Tigers had several season-ending injuries to key players the last two seasons. Last winter, Fort Hays broke through and finished 20-9 overall and 12-8 in the MIAA, the Tigers' best season since 2005-06.
"It was just a matter of when, and so I am glad that it did," said Hobson, in his fifth season at FHSU.
Because of the success, Hobson said spring practice was "easier, more enthusiastic." The players worked hard during the summer and return four starters this season, including junior forward Katelyn Edwards and sophomore center Kate Lehman.
Edwards collected second-team all-MIAA honors, while Lehman was a third team pick and earned all-league defensive team.
"I have never been on a team where girls outside of practice have worked so hard," Edwards said.
The upperclassmen have effectively led the team and the squad is farther ahead in preseason than it's ever been with Hobson. The differences could help Fort Hays create a winning tradition in the difficult MIAA.
"I don't want to be an up-and-down," Hobson said. "Like OK, you have got a couple of good players for two years, you are good for two years and now you are down here again. I like to be consistent. I think that is a true test of a program is to maintain and it's much easier to get there than it is to stay there."
On Saturday, Fort Hays opens its season with a home contest against McPherson College. Game time is 2:30 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers were picked fifth in the MIAA preseason coaches' and media polls behind four teams that all made the NCAA tournament in Washburn University, Pittsburg State University, Emporia State University and MIAA newcomer Northeastern State (Okla.) University. The league expanded to 15 teams this winter.
"I just want to be up there every year, and whether we are able to do that, if you have a 15-team league and you have everybody trying to do the same thing," Hobson said. "It's not as easy as it might seem.
"We could have a better team than we had last year and finish worse," he added. "It's absolutely possible; What is hard to judge and hard to measure is how many junior college kids and transfers people bring in."
Two key players from last year's squad, senior point guard Kaiameka Brown and senior forward Kelsie Sorenson, have been limited in the preseason. Brown was a key reserve last season and started the first exhibition game of the season against Kansas State University before she hyper-extended her knee with about two and a half minutes left.
"I think she will be ready to play Saturday, but we are just being careful with it," Hobson said. "We are pretty sure there is nothing real, real serious wrong with it."
Sorenson, known for her defense and rebounding, started for the last two years. She developed mononucleosis near the end of last year and has had some continued issues with her health. Sorenson has played just six minutes in each of the exhibition contests.
Senior Melissa Nelson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two years ago, averaged 6.4 points per game last winter and has started both of the exhibition games.
Last year, Fort Hays averaged 72.1 points per contest, but much of the offense came from rebounding and free throws. FHSU collected 700 free throw attempts, third-most in school history, and 451 offensive rebounds, fifth-most in Tiger annals. Fort Hays shot 40.4 percent from the field.
The Tigers return senior starting guard Traci Keyser and sophomore guard Keriann Shaw and also brought in several new players who are expected to play key roles, including freshman guards Taylor Chandler, Beth Bohuslavsky and Paige Lunsford and junior forward Tera Ingalsbe.
"I think that our scoring is going to way more diversified this year, because Mel came back so much stronger," Edwards said. "I think she is going to be one of our top scorers this year."
Edwards collected 14.6 points and eight rebounds per game, both team-highs, while Lehman finished second on the squad with 10.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and set a school mark with 96 blocks. Lehman is stronger than she was last season -- "not even comparable," Hobson said. Hobson would like Lehman to see improve in two areas: finishing from the field and the line and defensive positioning.
Against Kansas State, Lehman collected 17 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in 25 minutes (Hobson counted eight blocks when he watched the film). Against Kansas, Lehman tallied 16 points, three rebounds and three blocks.
"I think it's almost scary," Edwards said. "Even in the K-State and KU games, Kate looks like she belongs out there. I think this year in our conference, just looking at last year and everything, she has grown so much and she just has that much more room to grow. I can see her growing throughout this season."