SALINA, Kan. Not deterred by all the glitz and glamour of playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association Women's Division I National Tournament starting Tuesday in Salina's Bicentennial Center, Northeastern A&M sophomore forward Wilka Montout remains grounded in her role as a team leader.

"Going into this tournament my role is to try and be a leader both on and off the court," said the 6-5 Montout, who hails from French Guiana. "Everything we do will start with me, so I'm going to have to try and set the tone from the first tip off."

Setting the tone has been Montout's mantra all season after a rather obscure freshman season.

She was the recipient of NEO's third annual Dixie Woodall Inspirational Award while also being selected most valuable player in Region II. After averaging 21 points in the three games of the Region II Tournament at Shawnee, Montout was selected the most valuable player.

"We-We (her nickname) has meant everything to this team this year," Lady Norse head coach Jim Rowland said. "From her leadership both on and off the court (she has a 4.0 grade point average), she has gotten tons better than she was last year."

Along with all the accolades Montout has received, she has also had to deal with the pressure of knowing that on any given night, several Division I scouts have been in the audience to evaluate her abilities.

"Everytime I step on the court I know in my heart what my priorities are and I block out any potential distractions," Montout said. "I feel like I've improved as the season has gone on, but I also feel like there are still a lot of areas where I need to improve."

Montout's evolution from one year to the next has been astounding. As a freshman her role was primarily to clog up the paint and be a dominant shot-blocker.

While averaging 10.5 points a game, Montout recorded 50 blocked shots. She also led the Lady Norse by sinking 134 of 229 field goals for 59 per cent. She also ranked second on the team with a 5.5 rebounding mark.

"Last year we had Inga (Orekhova, now at South Florida) to carry the load as a scorer and I was trying to learn the American-style of play as a freshman," Montout said. "So I was just trying to do the little things that I could do to help the team win."

"Coming from where she did, it wasn't her job to put up a lot of shots and be as productive on the offensive end as she has been this year," Rowland said. "So she wasn't a threat. She was told to go guard this person and make some blocked shots and rebound."

"This year as a sophomore I needed to step up and be a leader and not just sit back and wait for someone else to do it," Montout said. "Not only has my offensive production increased, but I feel like I've really improved on the defensive end also."

Montout ranks 13th in the nation and led the Oklahoma Collegiate Athletic Conference in scoring with an 18.6 average. While her field goal percentage has dropped 10 points (224 of 462), she has taken

almost twice as many shots and her 48 per cent average continues to lead the team. She ranks second on the team with 35 blocked shots and an 8.2 rebounding average.

"We have made her into a scorer with a lot of hard work and determination on her part," Rowland said. "That was really something that she didn't ever really think she could do."

"Offensively, I just need to relax and be me and understand that nobody can stop me if I'm on my game," Montout said. "I feel comfortable going into the tournament that my defensive play is solid."

Rowland thinks that more than anything Montout's metamorphosis is a result of her maturity and development from one year to the next.

"I think she is a case of a kid coming out of her shell and working hard to become a more complete basketball player," Rowland said. "She's definitely the best post player I've had in my seven years at NEO.

"She can step inside, she can step outside band she can take people off the dribble," Rowland said. "She's our backbone and the kids rally around her."

The No. 11 seed Lady Norse (23-9) open play in the national tournament at noon Tuesday against No. 6 seed New Mexico Junior College (26-4) of Hobbs. The double-elimination tournament continues through next Saturdays 7 p.m. championship game.