Danielle Zanotti, Shalee Lehning, Marlies Gipson, Kari Kincaid and Ashley Sweat have been playing together for years now.
All five players were members of the 2005 AAU National Champion Kansas Belles coached by Ron Hellwig.
Since that trophy, Zanotti, Lehning and Gipson won a Women’s National Invitational Tournament Championship in 2006 for K-State.
Kincaid and Sweat joined the team to help lead the team back to the WNIT semifinals the following year.
And last year the same group of women went on to win the Big 12 Championship — the first outright Big 12 Championship in the program’s history.
According to Lehning, Hellwig allowed the women to play to their own strengths.
K-State women’s basketball head coach Deb Patterson said Hellwig as a coach makes it about the kids and not himself.
Instead of bringing the team in early to shoot jump shots over and over, she said she decided to let the women play against well-respected competition and grow stronger as a team.
“I’m never one to have high school players come to college too soon,” Patterson said.
The AAU circuit opens up the recruiting process for high school players. Prior to joining the Belles, Lehning was playing with Mid America Youth Basketball, MAYB, league over the summer.
“AAU is where the coaches are,” Lehning said.
Gipson was the first to commit to K-State.
Kincaid, who said she always knew she wanted to be a Wildcat, committed second.
After that, the pieces fell in place for Patterson, who called the scenario “dream-like.”
“I looked at each one of those girls who was so exceptional and so much alike in how they matched our system,” she said.
The Belles are not necessarily a pipeline for Patterson like the D.C. Assault program has been for men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin.
However, Hellwig has provided some other important additions to Patterson’s run of success with the program in the past decade. Patterson mentioned two players, Molly Beal and Laurie Koehn.
This Belles’ team is very similar to another AAU Kansas team, the Thunderbolts. The Thunderbolts consisted of another group that had a great run of success during its time at K-State.
The Thunderbolts consisted of Koehn, as well as Nicole Ohlde and Kendra Wecker, two of K-State’s most recognizable players.
The Belles’ women said they have always been close. Sweat, Gipson and Lehning all went to Zanotti’s all-state game in Oklahoma.
And it is that friendship that has led this Wildcat team to be as successful as it has been and will continue to be.