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Gators redshirt junior Kayla Lewis leads the SEC with 9.5 rebounds per game in league contests.

Saturday February 15, 2014More Than Hoops: Breakout Season for Kayla Lewis Rooted in Personal Transformation

Gators redshirt junior Kayla Lewis leads the SEC with 9.5 rebounds per game in league contests.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- So much of the old Kayla Lewis is easily discovered in just a few minutes on the Internet. You can find ample snapshots of the other Lewis through a quick Google Images search.

There she is as a sophomore at Southwest DeKalb (Ga.) High, leaping into the arms of teammate Kajuanna Rivers after winning a state championship. There she is again, this time as a senior celebrating a third consecutive state championship in 2010 with teammates Chyna Miley and Jamesha Blake.

Back then, Lewis the basketball player and Lewis the person were difficult to separate, even for their owner.

Kayla Lewis

"A lot of my identity growing up had been in my basketball,'' Lewis said. "That's how people knew me."

When basketball was taken away during Lewis' freshman season with the Gators, you can imagine the personal turmoil that swirled inside the 2010 Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year and the Peach State's Miss Basketball.

Lewis had never been hurt other than for a nagging groin injury one season with her AAU team. She never missed a game at Southwest DeKalb, where she drew a steady stream of college recruiters to her games.

Lewis opted to leave her home state and come to Florida, where her older sister, Kashara, was a political science major while Kayla was in high school. She visited Kashara during spring break once and met Gators coach Amanda Butler.

They formed a bond and instead of playing close to home at Georgia, where the Gators play Sunday (1 p.m., ESPNU), Lewis signed with Florida.

"It was hard but at the same time it wasn't hard,'' Butler said of luring Lewis away from the Bulldogs. "Kayla and I connected very early. Everybody wanted her but the relationship piece was so important to Kayla and it's definitely important to me.

"We just found a lot of common ground."

*****

As for Lewis' freshman season at Florida, she started the first six games but something wasn't right.

She was eventually diagnosed with a bone bruise on her right knee. Still, Lewis was unable to make plays that came naturally in high school.

There was also a nagging pain in her lower right leg.

"That was more mentally damaging than being out -- when I was in and I couldn't move the way I wanted to move,'' Lewis said. "I just felt horrible."

She underwent tests and more tests. Finally, she was diagnosed with a fracture of the right fibula. She missed the final 14 games of the season.

Butler recognized the burden Lewis carried at not being able to play.

"The things that happened to Kayla were just so weird and random,'' Butler said. "It wasn't just the basic run-of-the-mill basketball injuries. You are just scratching your head, 'how can we prevent that?' They were just so odd and untimely."

Kayla Lewis

A Christian from the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Lewis felt lost much of the spring semester of 2011. She couldn't play and help her team, which in the view of the teenage Lewis made her worthless.

She was used to being the star. The role of bystander did not fit.

"I was down about it,'' she said.

Lewis attended a couple of bible studies with the UF chapter of Athletes in Action during her spare time. She learned about a retreat the organization had scheduled in Fort Collins, Colo., during the summer between her freshman and sophomore seasons.

Lewis signed up. She now considers the experience more important than anything she has ever done on a basketball court.

"I think it strengthened some things in her that were already there,'' Butler said. "It made her more aware of how her faith was going to dictate every part of her life in a positive way."

Lewis went back to Colorado last summer for two weeks to work as a counselor at the faith-based retreat. That's how much of a lasting impact her first visit had.

"I went up there and had a life-changing experience,'' she said. "I came back and had a whole new perspective on my sport and on myself, which was rooted in Christ."

*****

Lewis' journey to the breakout season she is currently experiencing still had a major hurdle to clear once she returned from that week in Colorado almost three years ago.

Three games into her sophomore season Lewis suffered a debilitating hip injury. She didn't play the rest of the season and was redshirted. Two years into her Gators career, Lewis had played in less than 30 percent of the team's games due to injuries.

But as a person, Lewis had rotated 180 degrees.

The year away from basketball provided Lewis an opportunity to develop a new identity that guides her to this day.

"I was sad about it but I knew that just because I was hurt I wasn't lost as a person,'' she said. "It was much easier that year to try to find other ways as far as being a supporter and trying to help my teammates out."

Finally healthy, Lewis returned to the court last season and played in every game. She averaged 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds -- modest numbers compared to her prep career but meaningful in ways statistics cannot do justice.

Lewis has maintained the momentum from a year ago, taking on a new role for the undermanned Gators. Recruited primarily as a guard, Lewis is playing underneath for the undermanned Gators.

Due to transfers, injuries and Christin Mercer's suspension, the 6-foot Lewis is Florida's most important post player. She has started all 24 games and is averaging 11.2 points and 9.0 rebounds.

Lewis was named SEC Co-Player of the Week on Monday for averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds over the last three games. She leads the league with an average of 9.5 rebounds in conference games.

The Gators (17-7, 7-4) are tied with LSU for fourth in the SEC entering Sunday's game at Georgia (16-8, 4-7).

At times during Lewis' career Butler wondered if the Gators would ever have the player she recruited. That question has been answered.

"There is really no way to adequately capture it by describing it with words,'' Butler said. "She has just been enormous in the impact she has made, and that's just not having those big-time double-double games. She has made it so much more important this year to impact the people around her and use her voice in ways she never has as a leader."

A psychology major who is scheduled to graduate in May, Lewis has one more year of eligibility remaining. Lewis said she has no interest in playing professionally after college and wants to perhaps enter the ministry or pursue a career in family and children services.

While her perspective has changed drastically since last tasting success on the court at such a high level, Lewis is thankful her game -- and body -- are treating her kindly once again.

"I definitely feel a lot more like myself than I have in the past,'' Lewis said. "The game seems like it's moving more in slow motion than before. I feel a lot of what I'm doing right now is just doing my job.

"If you keep doing the right things, eventually good things are going to happen."

*****

In perhaps the most memorable game of her UF career, Lewis scored a game-high 21 points on her 22nd birthday in November in a win at Kennesaw State.

Kayla Lewis

Kennesaw State is located only about 25 miles from where Lewis grew up and several friends and family members attended the game. They sang Happy Birthday and many of those same folks will be at Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday in Athens.

"It's always fun to go home,'' Lewis said. "I'm excited."

The Gators could use a similar performance from Lewis on Sunday.

The way she has played of late, don't discount it.

The youthful and smiling Lewis in all those newspaper photos from high school didn't expect her career to go the way it has at Florida, but she is not complaining.

Instead, she embraces each and every moment.

A perspective only time and turbulence can provide.

"My role has changed dramatically,'' she said. "That's been my drive, to stay rooted in the fact that you are here to serve this team and be grounded in the fact you have a job and be faithful to that and faithful to the people around you.

"I wouldn't trade my experience here for anything."

 

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