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When Ally Lehman came to Northern Illinois University, she had her sights set on becoming a leader on the hardwood for the NIU women’s basketball team. When she graduates in May, she will be preparing to lead troops into battle for the U.S. Army.
Lehman, who is enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at NIU, which prepares young men and women to become leaders in the American military, recently received a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry. The commission is one of the most hotly pursued placements among the thousands nationwide who complete ROTC each year. Such combat jobs were made available to females for the first time last year when a dozen women were chosen for the honor. This year, Lehman is one of only 10 women selected.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Lehman said of learning the news. “I have been given the opportunity to do something great and hopefully make a difference.”
Not bad for someone who viewed ROTC as a backup plan.
Lehman came to NIU from her hometown of Nineveh, Ind., an hour south of Indianapolis, to pursue her dream of being a Division I college basketball player. By her sophomore year, she was questioning her commitment to that path and exploring other options. She met with her academic adviser to look for courses that would make her want to remain in college and stay eligible to play basketball. Her adviser suggested military science.
Her basketball coach at the time wasn’t so sure about the new path. She was concerned that Lehman might not be able to excel both on the court and as a member of the Huskie Battalion. Such concerns were not unfounded. When she graduates in May, Lehman will be the first NIU athlete to graduate while completing ROTC training and remaining competitive in a sport.
However, rather than hindering Lehman, the ROTC experience seems to have enhanced her on-court performance. Since enrolling in the program, the 5’10” guard has set the NIU single-season record for rebounds (329) and the single-season record for 10-rebound games (21). On the day she learned of her infantry commission, she broke her own NIU single-game scoring record when she went off for 48 points, tying the all-time Mid-American Conference single-game scoring mark.
She has been on a tear all season. The Huskies have been at or near the top of the standings in the Mid-American Conference West Division all season and (as of Feb. 22) Lehman leads the team in scoring (18 points per game) rebounds (10.2 per game) and minutes played. She also has been named the conference Player of the Week a team-record five times. She also is leading by example off of the court. When one of her teammates was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over the Christmas break and lost her hair due to medical treatments, Lehman shaved her head in solidarity. “One team, one, fight. It’s a unity thing,” she says simply.
That commitment to team and teammates is typical of Lehman says NIU Women’s Head Basketball Coach Lisa Carlsen.
“The things she has been able to accomplish in the military and in basketball are remarkable,” says Carlsen. “That she can excel at both – it takes a special person to do that. The only way it gets done is by being passionate about both entities. Basketball and the military have helped each other. She would never be the player she is without the ROTC.”
Lt. Col. Jay Morrison, chair of the NIU Department of Military Science, said Lehman’s competitive spirit and drive is equally balanced by her desire for her teammates to succeed. These are qualities that will serve her well in the military. “She has the heart, determination and warrior ethos we need in our combat leaders,” he said.
Lehman, who is pursuing a bachelor of arts in general studies, graduates in May 2017, then heads to Fort Benning, Ga., for the Infantry Officer Basic Course. Her plans are to become a career military officer.
“I would like to break down some barriers," Lehman said. “I’m really hoping to show other women it can be done.”