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As Northern Illinois women's basketball player Ally Lehman sat in a salon chair in nearby Sycamore, her heart fluttered and her head felt lighter — literally.A stylist had just snipped off Lehman's ponytail, which once hung to the middle of her back...

NIU's Ally Lehman knows about sacrifice on and off the court, and in ROTC

As Northern Illinois women's basketball player Ally Lehman sat in a salon chair in nearby Sycamore, her heart fluttered and her head felt lighter — literally.A stylist had just snipped off Lehman's ponytail, which once hung to the middle of her back...

NIU's Ally Lehman knows about sacrifice on and off the court, and in ROTC

As Northern Illinois women's basketball player Ally Lehman sat in a salon chair in nearby Sycamore, her heart fluttered and her head felt lighter — literally.

A stylist had just snipped off Lehman's ponytail, which once hung to the middle of her back but now was being donated to make a wig for women undergoing cancer treatments.

"My roommates and teammates and coaches are sitting there and I'm looking at myself in the mirror. … There was no going back,'' Lehman said. "As we went through it, I just kept saying it's going to get better-looking. It has to."

This is a young lady who knows something about growth.

Just before Christmas, Lehman and her Huskies teammates received the terrible news that freshman guard Paulina Castro had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. A picture Castro sent to players of her head being shaved gave Lehman an idea.

"I texted my mom and said, 'You're going to have a different child when you see me Saturday,'" Lehman said. "For me, it just made sense. If I see somebody struggle, I want to be part of it with them. It's one team, one fight.''

Other NIU players dyed purple streaks in their hair as a tribute to Castro. Everybody wore purple wristbands and warm-up shirts that read "PC Strong." Lehman, an All-America candidate who also participates in the ROTC program at NIU, surprised nobody by taking support for a teammate one step further and shaving her head.

Ally Lehman Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune

Ally Lehman, who shaved her head out of solidarity with teammate Paulina Castro, dribbles during a practice on campus in DeKalb on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017.

Ally Lehman, who shaved her head out of solidarity with teammate Paulina Castro, dribbles during a practice on campus in DeKalb on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017.

(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

"This team revolves around Ally — Ally the player and Ally the person," said coach Lisa Carlsen, who has NIU off to its best start in 23 years. "That's who she is. And it exemplifies who we are as a team."

Lehman laughed recalling various reactions to her new 'do. Her parents said they were proud. Friends who initially teased her felt bad after learning the reason behind the buzz. But the most memorable response came when Lehman saw Castro for the first time and they could compare crew cuts.

"She had a giant smile,'' Lehman said. "That was worth it."

Making worthwhile sacrifices epitomizes everything about Lehman, whom the U.S. Army contracted officially before a game earlier this season. Four years of active duty await Lehman after she graduates in May and heads to infantry officer training in Fort Benning, Ga., a future potentially involving combat that excites her as much as it concerns mom and dad in Ninevah, Ind.

"At first, the news hit my parents hard, but once I finally told them that's where my heart is they were OK," Lehman said. "My mom worries more than my dad. … But I want to stick with it, show women it can be done, (that) you can get promoted and have a future in the military."

That goal began to form when Lehman was growing up near Camp Atterbury, a training base for the Indiana National Guard about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Her small community — population 3,987 — included a heavy military presence. Profoundly affected by images of Sept. 11, 2001, Lehman routinely approached men and women in uniform at the local Wal-Mart.

"I'd go up to a soldier and say thank you for your service,'' Lehman said. "I was always interested in the military. When they sent recruiters to my high school, I was the one doing pull-ups in a dress. I always wanted to go against the bad guys."

That passion followed Lehman to NIU, where the ROTC program offered a refuge after an arduous first two seasons of basketball. Under previous coach Kathi Bennett and her staff, practice began feeling like work for Lehman and every step away from the sport brought her closer to a military science class that changed her life.

"I started falling out of love with the game," Lehman said.

Ally Lehman Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune

Northern Illinois University senior guard Ally Lehman, center, is flanked by Miya Starks, left, and Georgia Breunig, right during a practice on campus in DeKalb on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017.

Northern Illinois University senior guard Ally Lehman, center, is flanked by Miya Starks, left, and Georgia Breunig, right during a practice on campus in DeKalb on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2017.

(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

In the middle of Carlsen's second season at NIU, Lehman now has two loves that drive her to extraordinary limits every day. She typically wakes up at 5:50 a.m. and heads to ROTC physical training that ranges from long-distance running to calisthenics. Then she heads to class as part of a 15-credit-hour curriculum.

Weight-lifting follows lunch, before another class and basketball practice. A regular night class ends at 9:40 before Lehman, poised to become NIU's first student-athlete to complete the ROTC program, relaxes and recharges for another long day.

"It takes a special person — not just anybody can do it," Carlsen said. "From a leadership standpoint, the passion to serve her country, it's the same way Ally talks about her teammates and basketball. There are a lot of parallels."

There are few peers in the Mid-American Conference, let alone America. At 5-foot-10, Lehman leads all NCAA guards in rebounding at 10.7 per game heading into Saturday's affair against Toledo and is tied for ninth nationally in assists at 7.1. She erupted for 48 points against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in November and averages a team-high 16.8 for an NIU team hoping to make its first NCAA tournament since 1995.

"I'm soaking it all in," Lehman said. "This team is the best I've ever been a part of. I leave it all out there on the court for them."

Not to mention the floor of the salon.

[email protected]

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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