By BRETT MARSHALL
For her entire high school and college basketball career at Sublette and Kansas State University, Shalee Lehning never had a serious injury that required major surgery.
Now, for the second time in less than two years, the former Lady Lark all-stater and Lady Wildcat All-American will undergo an operation to repair an injury sustained while playing for the Atlanta Dream of the Women's National Basketball Association.
Lehning, a reserve point guard for the Dream this season after starting a season ago and helping the Dream to the WNBA Finals, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on July 31 against the Connecticut Sun.
In a telephone interview with The Telegram on Tuesday, Lehning said she will undergo surgery on Aug. 18 to repair the torn ACL, and will remain in Atlanta until the Dream's season ends. She will return to Manhattan and resume her duties as an assistant coach at KSU to head coach Deb Patterson.
"The hardest part with this injury is that when they first looked at my knee in the locker room during the game, the Sun's doctor thought it was just a dislocated knee cap and if there wasn't any pain, I'd be able to go back and play," said the 24-year-old Lehning. "We didn't get back to Atlanta until Monday night (the day after the injury was sustained) so I didn't get in to see our doctor until Tuesday morning."
It was then the results of an MRI revealed a tear in her right knee ACL. The team opted not to inform Lehning of the injury until after their Tuesday night game.
"There's been a lot of emotion and it's really drained me with after thinking I might just be out a week or perhaps two," Lehning said. "It didn't swell and I didn't need crutches. It was just a shock to hear the news. It's taken a little time to wrap my arms around this again."
Lehning said the injury occurred early in the first quarter when she was defending a fast break by the Sun.
"I was the point person on the defense and I was back-pedaling. I was trying to set my feet to take a charge," Lehning said. "She went to my right, I tried to shift my body and the weight all went to the right knee. There was a sharp pain and I thought she had hit me."
So for the second time in her all-too-brief career, Lehning is facing surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.
Near the end of her rookie season of 2009, Lehning sustained a fourth degree separation of her left shoulder that tore ligaments and tendons around the joint. It was an injury, ironically, at the time she said was equivalent to that of a torn ACL.
"I'm not sure my body's meant to take the beating it gets in the WNBA," Lehning said. "I'm not the biggest or most physical player out there. I've definitely been blessed with the opportunity to play professional basketball. It's been my dream my entire life and I've lived it for most of three seasons. It's disappointing and frustrating right now, but I'm sure there's a greater purpose that God's got a reason for this. I just need to remind myself that I made it for three years and I can hang my hat on that."
With an uncertain playing future, Lehning said she will take the process one day at a time and then determine what she will or won't do next spring when tryouts roll around for the 2012 WNBA season.
"It's a lot to grasp right now, and so soon," Lehning said. "I'm happy with what I've accomplished, especially when so many people said that I'd never make it this far and some never thought I'd play at the major college level. I've accomplished so much."
In her three seasons with the Dream, Lehning has gone from reserve to rookie starter to second-year leader and starter, and then back to a reserve role this season.
The latest role reversal came when the Dream landed former Duke standout and WNBA All-Star Lindsey Harding, who is more of a scorer (averaging 10 points) while Lehning's best season was 2010 with 3.1 points.
"I've always been a player to do what the team needs me to do," Lehning said. "With Lindsey, my role changed. She's a great player and I've learned from her. I still feel as though I have had the respect of my teammates, on and off the floor. Lindsey brings other things to the table, as do I. I still feel as though I had a voice in practice."
Lehning said once she returns to Manhattan to resume her coaching duties, she would continue to rehab the knee and most likely would be more involved in recruiting than she did in her first full year as an aide for the Lady Wildcats.
Then, in an effort to help the youthful backcourt, Lehning was in town for most of the practices where she would battle the guards who inherited the position she played in her four years in purple and white.
"At this point, I'll focus on the surgery and how I respond," Lehning said. "We'll see where I am next year and to see if I would like to get back in (the WNBA). Definitely, having the coaching will help in my mental outlook. I love coaching and it's what I want to do.
"To be able to coach at my alma mater I couldn't ask for more. It's rewarding and I'm just so passionate about K-State. Recruiting the kids has been a blast and I feel like I can sell the school."