By BRETT MARSHALL
She now sits on the bench in Manhattan and on the road, watching the Kansas State Lady Wildcats play basketball.
Bramlage Coliseum is an all too familiar place for one of the greatest players in KSU women's basketball as evidenced by the No. 5 jersey hanging from the rafters.
Her mark in Big XII basketball will forever be etched as Shalee Lehning concluded one of the fabulous careers of any point guard in conference history last March.
Now, nearly a year after she battled mononucleosis in the closing months of her senior season, Lehning, a Sublette native, finds herself in a position she has dreamed about, but never expected at the tender age of 23.
During the recent holiday break, KSU coach Deb Patterson announced the hiring of Lehning as an assistant coach, replacing the departing Andria Jones.
Lehning had accomplished her "dream" in the late spring of 2009 when she made the roster of the Atlanta Dream of the Women's National Basketball Association. It was the culmination of a long journey that began when she was a prep phenom at Sublette in leading her team to consecutive Class 2A state championships (2004-2005) and a 52-game winning streak.
Her journey had continued at Kansas State where she jumped into the starting lineup early in her freshman year and remained there until she concluded her All-Conference and All-American career in Manhattan, including one Big 12 regular season championship.
The rookie from small town southwest Kansas had proven all the naysayers wrong by making the Dream roster of 11 players.
"I was that kid that people said would never make teams," Lehning said. "I was the kid who was told she was too slow, couldn't shoot, couldn't guard. The thing I've taken from my experience is that I believed in me, and others, especially my family and close friends, believed in me. What do I take from this? That dreams are possible to become real and that hard work pays off. I was very humble in my expectations of making the (Dream) team. I didn't know whether or not I could make it in the league."
Once the initial roster had been decided, the regular season began in early June of 2009. Coming off the bench in a reserve role, Lehning's numbers were not impressive, but she continued to work diligently in understanding her role. And the team, despite modest success, still was struggling with playing .500 ball.
"Even making the team, they can still cut you all the way to August," Lehning said of feeling the constant pressure of not knowing what might take place. "You get nervous and sometimes it can affect the way you play."
Less than halfway through the Dream's second season in the WNBA, Lehning found herself being called into the office of head coach Marynell Meadors while on a road trip to Minnesota.
"I'd had a couple of decent games and coach Meadors asked me 'Is the rookie ready to her first big start?'" Lehning recalled. "I didn't think it would happen, to be honest. I got real nervous but she had confidence in me and that helped. She just told me that I had earned the spot."
Thus, just as she had as a freshman at Kansas State, Lehning was thrust into the spotlight on a team comprised of all-stars at nearly every position.
"On paper, on that sheet, there's nothing that measures intensity, passion and heart," she said. "That's the ingredient for me. I'll find a way to work harder than anyone and that has helped me every step of the way."
Meadors, just like Patterson at Kansas State knew years before, that inserting Lehning into the starting lineup would produce results that few expected.
The Dream went on a 7-3 run in the first 10 games Lehning started after having a 6-8 record to start the season.
"I could be the true point guard for them," Lehning said. "I only had to run the offense, deliver the ball and let the others score. I could focus on defense and didn't have to worry about scoring. Everyone — the staff, the team — believed in me. I was unproven, but they gave me the chance and I just went out and did what I needed to do for the team."
Nearing the end of the final week of the regular season in late August, Lehning and her team were playing on the road at Washington. The previous game she had scored a season-high 15 points. In the next-to-the-last regular season contest, less than 10 minutes into the game, Lehning and one of the Washington players collided at full speed running down a loose ball.
"It was a dead sprint going for a long rebound," Lehning recalled of that incident. "I knew the instant we hit each other that I was hurt."
She sustained a fourth degree separation of her left shoulder that tore ligaments and tendons around the joint. It was an injury equivalent to that of a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the knee, a frequent injury to basketball players.
"I guess I tucked my shoulder when I went for the ball and it was exposed," Lehning said. "It spun me around in a complete circle and I could feel it sticking out and thought it was just dislocated."
The resulting injury ended her rookie season and the Dream were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Detroit. It was a tough time for the normally positive Lehning.
"I'd never had surgery for anything," Lehning said of that time in September. "I was in a sling for about six weeks. There's not a ton of rehabilitation for the shoulder when it's in the sling. It was shocking, disappointing, and frustrating all at the same time. It was so difficult not to be able to play in the playoffs. We had worked so hard for that all season."
As many athletes or non-athletes do, Lehning asked the proverbial question of "Why me?"
"My dreams were coming true and I just didn't understand why this happened," Lehning said. "But I guess God had a plan for me and I was going to learn from the injury but I wasn't sure what I was going to learn."
Lehning said that she has grown as a person, that she has grown in her faith and that she doesn't take things for granted.
"The shoulder is feeling good now and I think within a month, I'll be able to get back out on the floor and practice with the team," Lehning said. "The injury was so severe that they are using it as a case study on sports injuries. Some said it might be career-ending. I don't believe that, but I do know that things happen for a reason."
Thus, with her rookie season over, it was time for Lehning to return to Manhattan to complete her bachelor's degree in electronic journalism. She had nine hours to finish her undergraduate work.
During her time away from playing and while waiting for her shoulder to heal, Lehning spent part of her time as a volunteer assistant with the KSU women's team.
Then, one of the K-State assistants left the program and an opening was created. Enter coach Lehning.
"Coach (Patterson) has been my mentor and said I should keep playing as long as I could," Lehning said. "I had planned to go to Europe in January to play but the injury ended that idea. I guess that's not what God wanted me to do.
"When she talked to me about the job, I couldn't have asked for anything better. The lines were connecting for me because I've always wanted to be a coach. But this early, I was certainly not expecting it. It's such a blessing. I hope that I can use the knowledge that I have to help the team. I know what the staff and what the program expects of their players."
Admittedly, now coaching players with whom she was just a teammate can be a tenuous situation.
"I'm friends with the girls, I'm not afraid of getting after them," Lehning said. "I did it as a player, too. I'm just that feisty point guard who wants people to perform at a high level. That's what I expect of myself and of others. They listen and I think there's a level of respect about our staff from the players. It's not as tough as some might think."
Once the K-State season is concluded in March, Lehning will continue to work out in Manhattan and prepare for a return to Atlanta in May for the Dream's training camp. Again, only 15 players will be invited to the 10-day trials before the roster is set at 11. There are no guarantees, even for Lehning.
"I've got to go back and prove myself all over," Lehning said. "It's the same team and I've proven I can play. How I come back (from the shoulder injury) will be a big key. It's all about healing. It feels good and I can't wait to start shooting again."
Lehning averaged 3 points, 3.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds and just 1.6 turnovers per game and averaged 21 minutes playing time.