There is no easy way to get from Highland to Tempe, Ariz., home of Arizona State University.
The same holds true for making the daunting athletic leap from the Mississippi Valley Conference to the Pac-12 Conference or going from hitting shots against Triad and Mascoutah to hitting them against Stanford and UCLA.
Katie Hempen has always opted for the tougher challenge and the less traveled path when it comes to basketball.
It has served her well.
Already Arizona State’s all-time leader with 172 career 3-pointers and a 1,000-point scorer, the 5-foot-9 senior did not make her basketball journey from Madison County to major Division I basketball looking for individual glory and attention.
The success of her team trumps that by a mile.
Kids these days, they want things to be easy for them but to be successful, you have to keep working hard. Nothing’s ever going to come easy. You’re going to fail and you’re going go through hard times. Keep working.
“Growing up there were a couple people that told me I couldn’t be where I’m at today,” said Hempen, a senior guard and the third-leading scorer for the ninth-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils (22-4). “Anything is possible.”
Her older brother Marc Hempen used to tape a flashlight to the top of a concrete post back home when she was younger, rigging a book or something else underneath to get the correct angle, and then shooting baskets all night.
“You’ve got to work for things,” Katie Hempen said. “Kids these days, they want things to be easy for them but to be successful, you have to keep working hard. Nothing’s ever going to come easy. You’re going to fail and you’re going go through hard times. Keep working.”
Hempen channels her energy into making her team and everyone around her a little better. Those around her will tell you it has been that way since the beginning.
“Her passion and the enthusiasm that she brings every day are unparalleled,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “I’ve coached a lot of players for a lot of years and a lot of players have their days where they’re a little not quite as energized, maybe a little moody, but not Katie.
“Katie Hempen bring her energy and her enthusiasm, her intensity, every single day. That to me has just been amazing.”
Her passion and the enthusiasm that she brings every day are unparalleled.
Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne
Hempen is averaging 9.3 points per game. She had 12 points for the Sun Devils (22-4) Sunday in a 63-61 victory over 13th-ranked Stanford after scoring 17 on Friday against California.
Hempen is hitting 44 percent of her 3-point attempts (52-of-118) through 26 games and became ASU’s all-time leader with a 3-pointer Feb. 5 against UCLA. She has been an honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection the past two seasons after sitting out her first seasons at ASU following a transfer from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Former Highland girls basketball coach Matt Elledge remembers the way Hempen attacked every moment of practice, even as a freshman.
“We were pretty good and had some really good juniors and seniors that year and she fit in well,” said Elledge, who now coaches Highland’s boys basketball team. “She found her spot, challenged people in practice and just grew from there. She got the big picture at a very young age.”
Hempen said Elledge had a lot to do with that.
“He is a phenomenal coach and he treated me the way that I need to be treated,” Hempen said. “He looked at me and didn’t see a freshman, he coached me hard every single practice. He knew the potential I had and he saw the potential in everybody on our team.
“If I turned the ball over or I did something wrong, I got the same attitude as if a senior had turned the ball over. He didn’t baby me and didn’t treat me like I was a kid. He knew exactly how to make me a better player from the beginning.”
The first thing out of their mouth is not what a wonderful player Katie is, it’s what a wonderful person she is. I think that makes me prouder than anything.
When Amanda Levens left her job as the women’s basketball coach at SIUE to take an assistant coaching position at Arizona State, Hempen decided to follow. Katie knew she would have to sit out a red shirt year, but even though she had plenty of apprehension something inside her kept telling her this was the right move.
“She’s the one that brought me here to ASU,” Hempen said. “She’s the one that had faith in me. She put a lot of time and effort into making me the player I am today. I can’t thank her enough.”
Thorne spoke about Hempen’s red shirt year in glowing terms.
“During her red shirt year, I’ve never had a player that worked as hard as she did,” Thorne said. “She was in the weight room, on the court, she worked outside, on extra skills. She was getting fit, getting strong. All she could do was train, but that was really huge and impressive.”
Memorable NCAA Tourney run
Last spring, Hempen helped fuel Arizona State’s first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance since 2009. She fired in a career-high 23 points and five 3-pointers in a first-round win over Ohio, then hit two free throws to clinch a second-round win against Arkansas-Little Rock.
Hempen was the team’s top scorer again with 22 points in a 66-65 loss to Florida State that ended the Sun Devils’ season at 29-6.
“If you gave her an inch, she was draining the shot,” Thorne said. “As great a shooter as she is, it’s the little things she does. You see her taking a charge, making a hustle play, and those are the things that I think I remember the most.
“Just sacrificing her body. She is so tough and those are things that kind of separate her from other players.”
Hempen is about to embark on her third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. She enjoyed the tourney wins last season and of course wants to go even further her senior year.
“We were at home the first two games and I think that really helped us,” Hempen said. “We had a really, really good crowd. I still don’t believe if we didn’t have that crowd at home we could have pulled off those two wins.”
Arizona State upset 10th-ranked Florida State this season to avenge that painful one-point tournament loss.
Hempen was surrounded by a basketball-loving family that included her grandparents.
“My mom and my grandpa have been watching basketball since my mom was 8 years old,” Hempen said. “My dad was the coach for any sport you can think of. We still have kickball tournaments every Easter; my dad’s side of the family is so competitive.
“I’d always ask my brothers or have a coach or my dad or mom rebound for me. I shot around every day no matter what.”
Elledge and his entire family remains close to Hempen.
“She was always very skilled, she understood the game,” he said. “Even as a freshman she was a leader and a vocal leader. Being able to do what she’s done is pretty impressive, but I always knew she had the desire and had the heart.”
Hempen’s high school recruiting seemed to be a bit below the radar. She blames part of that on herself.
Her mother, Lisa Hempen, was working at SIUE and reached out to Levens to come take a look at her daughter.
“I definitely felt like I was under the radar,” Hempen said. “I didn’t have any big-time schools looking at me, but it was almost my fault too. I didn’t try hard enough to get my name out there or reach out to any big-time coaches or programs.
“I’ve always looked at basketball as a route to just have fun and enjoy life a little more.”
Hempen’s parents, Troy and Lisa Hempen, split up before she entered kindergarten but both helped nurture her love of the sport.
“I never wanted to be her coach and I never have,” he said.” I wanted to be her dad. I wanted to give her a hug and tell her she did great no matter if she had two points or 22 points.”
During his travels to ASU for home games, Troy Hempen has been approached by fans and others he doesn’t know wanting to talk about his daughter.
“The first thing out of their mouth is not what a wonderful player Katie is, it’s what a wonderful person she is,” Troy Hempen said. “I think that makes me prouder than anything. She’s managed through sports to bring people together, family and friends, her teammates ... it’s been special.”’
Basketball has opened doors for Hempen — and not only gym doors. There are friends from Highland and SIUE and Arizona State, especially the ultra-tight bond she shares with her current teammates.
“It’s being able to have the relationships that I do,” Hempen said. “I’ve created such a good bond with these girls and they’re always going to be with me, even after this season. You know they have you’re back, even if you’re right or wrong.”
They’ll always have her back in Highland, too. Former Highland Athletic Director Steve Lanxon remembers the numerous times Hempen knocked on his door asking for a key to the gym.
“She’s always want the key to go shoot around on the weekends,” said Lanxon, who was at Hempen’s college game with his wife when Hempen broke the 1,000-point mark. “She ate basketball and drank it and breathes it every minute.”
When Hempen was a freshman, she was part of a strong team that reached the super-sectional. Hempen’s 1,464 career points are the second-highest total in Highland history behind Christy Trame (1,628).
“That era she came through really set a tone and change in Highland basketball,” Lanxon said of Hempen. “She’s a very caring and giving person. She was always encouraging to other kids, very positive and always delighted in everybody else’s success, too.
“We were lucky to have her here. She’s like a rock star.”
Hempen still gets back home on occasion and thinks about basketball’s impact on her life.
“Any type of sport leads you to doors that you never think you’d be able to open,” she said. “I’ve gotten so many opportunities. I’m coming out of college debt free with so many experiences, with the professionalism of being an athlete and to hold myself accountable.
“Honestly it hasn’t been anything I’ve expected. I’d have never guessed I’d be in the position I’m in now. It’s definitely been a blessing for me.”