Shalee Lehning - A Hometown Legend
By Karen Danner
In a world filled with tragic news, horrific headlines and negative role models; people like Shalee Lehning stand out like a beacon in the darkness. This talented, yet humble, young woman calls Sublette her hometown – but her family and fans are excited that now she will be calling the WNBA court of the Atlanta Dream her new home. Will Kansas fans still back her in Georgia? The 1,500 Sublette residents who attended the ceremony recognizing Lehning and retiring her familiar number 5 jersey would assuredly say “Without a doubt, YES!”
So, how did this small town girl make it from a talented and all around athlete at Sublette High School to a standout record breaker at Kansas State University and finally the Women’s National Basketball Association draft? Anyone that knows Shalee or has seen her in action, would tell you – “SHE EARNED IT”! Her performance statistics read like a coach’s dream – Here are just a few:
· Lehning lead the Sublette Lady Larks team to 52 Consecutive wins and back-to-back Class 2A Kansas titles
· She’s ranked 2nd in the Nation and leads the Big 12 in assists per game her senior season.
· 1st in the Big 12 in assist/turnover ratio
· 1st on the Wildcats team and 9th in the league in rebounds
· Holds the top 4, K-State records for assists in a season
· Only player in Big 12 history to record 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 700 assists in her career
· One of only 5 players in Kansas State history to be recognized as a candidate for the National Player of the Year.
· 6th player in Kansas State History to be drafted to the WNBA
If these were the only accolades that could be said of Lehning, it would still be quite an accomplishment and Sublette would undoubtedly be very proud of their girl, but there really is so much more.
Two words that you will hear again and again in the description of Lehning are character and passion. She is known for having both of these qualities on and off the court. K-State Director of Athletics, Bob Krause describes Lehning as “A role model for all ages and in particular for young women who aspire to achieve excellence in academics, athletics and life.” He states “You could not ask for greater leadership, greater integrity or greater passion both as a player and as a person.”
K-State head coach, Deb Patterson has been quoted as saying “The intensity, passion, toughness and character that Shalee Lehning has brought to this program are unmatched” Patterson remarked, “her astounding 1000, 800, 700 record and her 20 rebound games are achievements which speak to the unconventional greatness that she has brought to the game and to the history of Kansas State women’s basketball”.
One would think that someone who has achieved so much success throughout her athletic career and who continues to receive recognition and notoriety as a standout player would eventually let it get to her head, right? Not so, says the people who know her the best. Coach Patterson said “The thing that makes her great is that she’s not about ‘I’ or about ‘Me’. She’s about the team; you just don’t see that with today’s players.”
One of Lehning’s former Sublette teammates, Becky Holland Binder, Assistant Softball Coach, Pratt Community College, said the thing that stands out in her mind about Shalee, is that “Her work ethic was unbelievable!” and “She was always very sincere and willing to help anyone if she could. It didn’t matter who you were or what she had just accomplished or gone through. No matter how hard her day was or how much success she achieved, she never treated anyone different. She was always the same and she’s just an all around great person”
Shalee even has her own fan club. A group of women from Sublette purchased KSU Season tickets each year and never missed a home game – even though it was a 10 hour round trip. These die-hard fans also attended the Big 12 and were always dressed out in K-State colors and carrying signs to cheer their favorite player on. One of those fans is Kathy Robson, owner of Kathy’s Hair Salon in Sublette. Speaking fondly as though she were talking about one of her own children, Robson referred to Lehning as a “remarkable young woman who would instead of throwing T shirts into the stands, would hand hers to an elderly or disabled fan each game. She’s always thinking of others.” “Hopefully, we’ll be driving to Georgia to watch her now! I’ve already promised my grandkids that we would go at least once.” she stated.
Most usually, parents have an amazing ability to see the good in their children and find something worthy of bragging about, no matter what their child does. But I don’t know many parents that feel as proud and as fortunate as Steve and Jane Lehning. Much like her humble daughter, Jane was hesitant to brag because she didn’t want to sound boastful, but when you have a daughter that has achieved such success; people want to know more about her. So with great pride and a dose of humility, Jane shared a few stories. “Shalee has always been one of those kids that did the right thing, not because she was asked to do it, but because it was what she wanted to do.” She mentioned that she would call each week to check on Shalee at K-State and often, Lehning and her roommates, teammates or friends would be busy helping someone in need.
Mrs. Lehning stated that “Shalee was on her way to visit a nursing home one day that I called and then another week she had the opportunity to help out with the Special Olympics.” Something that Shalee is very proud to be involved with. “Shalee feels like everything she has accomplished has been a gift from God and she believes that it is her responsibility to give back in return” Mrs. Lehning shared. Another way that Lehning gives back is with her time after each game. Shalee can always be found- signing autographs, taking pictures or speaking with young girls who look up to her as their hero and role model, not a job that Lehning takes lightly.
Mrs. Lehning believes that it is her daughter’s deeply rooted faith that has allowed her to achieve this level of success, with such a great attitude. She shared that Shalee has been involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) for a long time and that “She always puts her faith first”. “Every time that Shalee shoots, she makes a sign of the cross to symbolize that she gives credit to God for her ability” Mrs. Lehning stated. “She did this when she played High School ball, but I figured that she might stop once she was playing before thousands of College fans at K-State, but she didn’t, she still does it every time.” She continued, “This is Shalee’s way of recognizing that her talent is a gift and we are so proud of her for that.”
There seems to be a common thread here, between Shalee’s natural talent, her humble and unselfish spirit and her determination to live her faith. Even when sick recently with Mononucleosis, Shalee texted her mom with scripture verses of encouragement, because she knew that her Mom was worried about her. “I was supposed to be the one encouraging and supporting her and it was Shalee that was encouraging me.” Mrs. Lehning exclaimed. “I told her that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up”. That says it all.
One of Lehnings former teachers, Joy Jacquart, wrote an article recently. In part, it stated “The fall of 2002, I was a teacher at Sublette High School. One of the students in my speech class was Shalee Lehning. As a way for me to get to know the kids better and for them to get to know one another, I gave them a 10 question survey. The final question asked where they planned to be in ten years. As I sat alone in my classroom after school and read the responses to this survey, I had to grin and chuckle when I got to Shalee’s. The girl had dreams and I had to admire them; she planned to be playing in the WNBA! I remember sitting there and thinking that it was great for her to dream high and work hard to get there, but that she may be in for a bit of a reality check over the next few years. After all, I had only seen her play junior high ball and couldn’t imagine a kid from Sublette being successful as a professional athlete.”
Jacquart continued “I honestly did not know what to expect from Shalee in the classroom or on the court. She amazed me in both places. In class, she was fun, treated her classmates well, encouraged others, was respectful to everyone and worked hard. On the court, it was more of the same. In the end, I am the one who learned from Shalee. “A sentiment that I’m certain, many people share as well.”
Lehning spoke recently with Joshua Kinder of the Manhattan Mercury “I love challenges and I would love to go in and compete for some playing time.” she commented “Nothing is given to us. I understand that just being drafted secures me a spot in camp. The reality of making it is difficult. I’m going in hopeful and I have goals set. ” said Lehning.
I believe Jacquart’s summary of Lehning sums it up well. “She taught me to dream big and that nothing is impossible, that hard work pays off and that a smile and a few kind words can leave a lasting impression.” Jacquart reflected “As I mourned the end of her career, she told me to remember that one journey was ending while another was just beginning.” Wise advise that we can all benefit from.
No doubt, whether it is the WNBA or another path that life takes her down, Shalee Lehning will continue to put her faith first, give Kansas girls an excellent role model and her home town fans something to be proud of.
Thanks to Brett Marshall, Joshua Kinder and Joy Jacquart for their contributions to this story.
Photos Courtesy of Kansas State University.