Katya Leick might be the best player on the Kansas State women’s basketball team you haven’t heard of — yet.
On Monday, when the 6-foot-1 senior steps onto the floor at Bramlage Coliseum for the Wildcats’ exhibition opener against Washburn, it will be with excitement Leick hasn’t felt in more than two years — the last time she played a college basketball game.
Many would have given up and walked away. But Leick isn’t just anyone, not after enduring two difficult years having to wait for the chance to play basketball again. The Grey Cloud Township, Minn., native sat out the 2011-12 season after transferring to K-State from Nebraska. Then last year, just as she was getting set for her junior season, Leick tore her left ACL during an individual workout, forcing her hang up the jersey for another year.
“I know so few players who would have made the transition emotionally from a transfer, had that injury occur, and then during the course of the injury works to drop about 20 pounds and get back into shape,” K-State coach Deb Patterson said. “She then comes into this program fit and ready to play.”
If Leick’s three games during the Wildcats’ summer Italy tour were any indication, she’s never been more ready to play. The forward scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds in K-State’s win over the Italy All-Stars on Aug. 11. She was only getting warmed up because Leick followed that performance with a 27-point, 24-rebound game in the Wildcats’ 80-32 win over the Vicenza All-Stars a day later. Leick capped the tour with 16 points and 11 rebounds in another blowout victory on Aug. 17.
“It was amazing,” said Leick, who is one of three seniors for the Wildcats, including Chantay Caron and Ashlynn Knoll. “I couldn’t have done any of that without my teammates. I was so nervous too because it had been two years since I had played in a game. This is my last year, so I wanted to leave everything on the court for my team and start things the right way in Italy.”
Getting to that day in Italy was a long road, though, a path of ups and downs Leick said she didn’t understand at first.
“That was a really big struggle for me,” she said. “I had to reflect on why these kinds of things were happening in my life. I got with Coach P and my family and learned to accept this was God’s plan, so what can do from here?”
Her second year sitting out — due to her injury — was spent trying to get right mentally and physically. She tried to become a student of the game and a student of the Wildcats’ program.
“From then on I just wanted to better myself for the team, get healthy and get shape and stay in shape,” she said. “I learned more about how refs call a game, learned what Coach P wants from everyone and maintained my grades in the classroom. If I couldn’t perform on the court, I was going to perform off the court.
“Being here at K-State, with the program, the family and the fans, it reignited my love for basketball again. I always loved it and I never really thought about not playing. It was when do I get to?”
But to really understand where Leick wants to go, one must first understand where she’s been and how she wound up in Manhattan.
After spending two seasons with the Cornhuskers — playing in 40 games with nine starts, averaging 4.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game — Leick decided she needed to transfer. She wasn’t happy in Lincoln, Neb., and began to look at possible landing spots. Little did she know then it would only be a couple hours south at K-State.
“The only time I ever questioned my desire to still play basketball was when I left Nebraska because it was a really hard situation there,” Leick said.
Because Nebraska was leaving the conference for the Big Ten following her sophomore season there, Leick was able to transfer to a school in the Big 12 without any added penalty, only having to sit the one season due to transfer rules.
“I met Coach P and her philosophy, belief in God, was something that I really wanted to experience,” Leick said. “I never really had that adult guidance at Nebraska. Coach P isn’t only going to push you on the court as a basketball player, but also as a person off the court.
“Academics are important here, growing as a person, being a better person in your faith — that’s what builds a well-round woman and that’s important to me.”
At first, it was strange being at K-State. After all, she played against the Wildcats twice as a member of the Huskers.
“I was like, ‘yeah, I remember you, I had scouting reports on you,’ so it was different,” said Leick, who is majoring in journalism and mass communications. “But with the girls here, they’re amazing. I’ve never had better teammates or better coaches — good-hearted people. It was an easy adjustment to K-State.”
Helping that adjustment was Brittany Chambers. Leick obviously knew Chambers from playing against her at Nebraska. But this bond went further back than that, from their days competing against each other on the AAU circuit in Minnesota.
Leick and Chambers weren’t friends back then. Competitive rivals is probably a better way to describe the two from those days, long before they would ever become roommates in Manhattan.
“In high school, yeah, it was a rivalry, a healthy rivalry,” Leick said with a smile. “When we played games, that’s when we talked.
“My team, by the way, always won.”
That was until their sophomore year when Chambers and the Wildcats beat Nebraska 64-37 in Manhattan, and then again a month later in Lincoln, 69-64. Nebraska swept the season series their freshman year.
“My first year at Nebraska, we went unbeaten, but that game our sophomore year was the first time Brittany has ever beaten me in life,” she said. “I was quite salty after that. We shook hands, said ‘good game.’
“And then the next year we were on the same team.”
Leick only wishes the two of them could have actually played in meaningful games together at K-State.
“Being on the same team, I wish you could have seen how well we worked on the court,” she said. “We were close — she was my roommate. We had a lot of chemistry on the court.”
Patterson is hoping that same chemistry lends itself to this year’s team, as K-State enters the season with an overhauled roster of young and inexperienced players. Leick and Caron have the most Big 12 experience, something that could be key as Knoll is coming off an injury a year ago and the Wildcats have incoming freshmen — six if you count Kelly Thomson, who missed last season with an ACL tear of her own.
“Katya is out for two years, doesn’t know A-Z when it comes to our system, has never been on the floor with us, gets her window of opportunity, goes to Italy and has good games there, then comes back here and is competing like a leader here,” Patterson said. “She’s learning every single thing about how we like to play. But she’s fierce, aggressive and has really good instincts.
“It’s great having Chantay and Kat in the gym because they have warrior mentalities and they do understand the physicality and the speed and the certain level that you have to compete. The freshmen are out there trying to figure things out, thinking 10,000 thoughts every 10 seconds, while these two are playing.”
Leick is a natural forward, but has some versatility to her game, Patterson said.
“She can shoot the 3, post people up, shoot from mid-range,” she said. “She’s a very effective offensive player. She brings great energy, great leadership, wants the ball and will do anything to help her team succeed. She likes the responsibility of taking tough shots, which we need in our gym because of the younger players.”
And now, that night Leick has waited so long for is finally here, a chance to suit up and play basketball again.
“I’ll just need to breathe, collect myself and realize the first game will be like the second game and third game and fourth game — that you just have to keep playing hard, know your scout and keep your focus on the court,” Leick said.
“I’m hoping I will be less nervous since I’ve already played three games overseas. But it’s Bramlage Coliseum with our fans. I want to give them everything they came to see, so there’s a little bit of pressure that way, but I’m more than excited.”