Lehning’s story connects with recruits

By Joshua Kinder

Kindred Wesemann still remembers the first time she saw Shalee Lehning.

An eighth grader at the time, the small point guard recalls that moment being the first time she really believed that her dream of someday playing college basketball could really come true.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Shalee Lehning sitting the in the stands watching me play,’” she said. “Are you kidding me? I was in the eighth grade and I saw her there and a light bulb went off in my head like, ‘Wow, this really could happen.’”

It was especially meaningful to Wesemann, now a freshman at Kansas State, to have a former point guard like Lehning there on a recruiting visit.

“When you see her sitting up there, you’re seeing one of the greatest point guards to ever play this game — and she’s there to watch your game,” said Wesemann, who scored 14 points in the Wildcats’ win over Oklahoma last week.

Lehning, an All-American for the Wildcats from 2005-09, is one of the best point guards in Big 12 history, finishing her career with 800 assists, nearly 1,200 points scored and more than 900 rebounds.

Though Lehning no longer suits up for K-State, she’s still making an impact for the Wildcats — now in her fifth season on the coaching staff — and one of the program’s top recruiters.

“I believed that Shalee could be a fabulous recruiter because she is such a sincere people person, loves people and can talk to the wall and get the wall to talk back,” K-State head coach Deb Patterson said. “She’s very enthusiastic… such a phenomenal relationship builder.

“There’s a lot she’s experienced that I think people can and should relate to. She’s the ultimate role model and there’s no question whatsoever that you’re dealing with a wonderful and genuine person.”

Lehning — a K-State representative, ambassador for the state of Kansas and recruiter and assistant coach for the Wildcats — none of those titles should come as a surprise to anyone who knows the confident and seemingly always-positive former Sublette Lark.

“She can feel that passion of relating to people from this region, from this state who have really come from obscure places,” Patterson said. “The blue collar, the work-hard personality, the hunger, passion and intensity elements can take you a long way. That’s what we’re drawn to and that’s what she made her career on and she can honestly speak to it.

“She believes in dreaming big dreams because hers came true.”

It’s a message Lehning delivers on the recruiting trail, one she is passionate about and invested in. She says it’s not a sell job, like so many other coaches try to pull off in trying to lure talent to their respective programs.

“A lot of what I do in recruiting is based on my experience,” said Lehning, who played three years with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream before retiring following the 2011 season. “I’m incredibly prideful and understand the program here at Kansas State and I think players can relate to that. I can relate to them on what it was like to be recruited, what its like to be player in this program.

“When I speak to them, I’m speaking about an experience I lived myself. Instead of selling a program, I’m selling my family and being truthful. I think those are things young people want to be a part of and they’re hearing it from somebody who has been there and done that at K-State.”

It’s a message that resonated with Leti Romero, K-State’s prized freshman from Spain and leading scorer and rebounder this season.

Lehning — a KSHSAA Hall of Fame of inductee in 2013 — headed up Romero’s recruitment after watching a video of the Spanish star that was e-mailed to the coaching staff by a Romero family friend.

“We get e-mails all the time, from players, recruits — it’s not uncommon actually,” Lehning said. “I remember sitting at the desk that day. I watched it and was like, ‘wow, this kid’s really good.’ I showed Coach Patterson and she told me to follow up on it.”

Lehning built a relationship with Romero through social media using video chat and e-mails, eventually getting one of her three college visits during her first trip to the United States.

The only problem is that Romero’s visit to K-State was the same day the Wildcats were playing at Oklahoma last season. That wasn’t the only hurdle, however, as the team got stuck in the Sooner State after a snowstorm grounded the flight home.

“I went to Coach Patterson and asked if she could leave me behind,” said Lehning, who stayed back with former director of operations Danielle Zanotti. “We did the entire visit, we met people on campus, just the normal stuff, but (Romero) didn’t get to meet the team or Coach Patterson.”

None of that mattered. Romero was sold on K-State and Lehning.

“I was talking to Shalee — we had a really great relationship before my visit,” said Romero, who is averaging 14.6 points and 5.9 rebounds a game this season. “I enjoyed talking to her. She was honest with me and explained everything to me and I really believed in her and what the program was about.”

So did Wesemann.

“Being able to put the name with the face and what she accomplished at K-State, is definitely an advantage for Coach Lehning and for this K-State program,” she said.

Lehning believes the only good way to recruit is to be open and honest with young people, all the time. As a former high school star herself, she knows its not always that way.

“That’s why I think I am good at certain areas of recruiting, because I have been through it and did have people who I knew weren’t genuine and were just giving me a sales pitch,” Lehning said. “We tell kids exactly where we’re at and how we are and the kids pick up on that. We’re able to form a connection because of that.”

Talent wins games, no doubt. But Lehning looks for more than just the best jumper on the recruiting trail.

“When I recruit a kid, it’s much deeper than me just recruiting a basketball player,” she said. “I invest in them, enjoy learning about their life, learning who they are and take great pride in being in this position to help them become great, wonderful women and understand what it takes to be successful in life.

“It’s all about the big picture to us.”

Like Romero and Wesemann, Shaelyn Martin also created a strong connection with Lehning, especially being from Kansas. 

“She has an amazing personality and knows how to connect with players,” said Martin, who signed with the Wildcats in November out of Salina Central. “There are so many good things about her — she’s so positive about everything and upbeat about what’s going on in their program.

“Having a former player from Kansas, who did what she did at K-State, trying to get you to play there too, is really special.”

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