When she steps on the Scott Gymnasium floor tonight, Dickinson State junior Kia Herbel plans to work as hard as she can every minute she's out there.

Herbel's dedication to basketball stems from her high school days, when she was lucky enough just to be playing.

Knee injuries stemming from a car accident during her early teen years hindered her athletic development and nearly kept her off the girls basketball team at New Town High School.

"I never thought I'd be playing college ball, to be honest," Herbel said.

Now, Herbel isn't just playing, she's starring for DSU and has been a major factor in the team's turnaround this season.

The 6-foot-2 center is averaging 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds a game while giving the 19th-ranked Blue Hawks something it didn't have in coach Guy Fridley's first two seasons -- a mobile post player that is not only trustworthy in the paint, but can also open things up for the team's perimeter shooters.

"Once we got Kia, our basketball team got a lot better quickly," Fridley said. "It's exciting to get a player who can go in there, get rebounds and get high percentage shots. ... We had all the pieces around. We were just missing that one link. I think Kia was that one link that helped us."

With Herbel dominating in the post -- she leads the Dakota Athletic Conference by shooting 60 percent from the field, is second in scoring and fourth in rebounding -- the Blue Hawks are off to a surprising 10-4 start, their best since the 2003-04 season when the team finished 20-9 overall and reached the NAIA Division II national tournament.

DSU earned its first conference win at Minot State on Dec. 6 but begins the real DAC season tonight when it hosts at 10th-ranked Black Hills State at 5:30 p.m. The Blue Hawks take on South Dakota Mines at 4 p.m. Saturday.

DSU last played a week ago, beating Rocky Mountain College 66-58 on the road, and Herbel said she's itching to get back on the floor. She wants to make sure fans know just how improved the Blue Hawks are after finishing last season 8-21.

"I'm looking forward to this game," Herbel said. "... It'll definitely prove how far we've come as a team and show everybody how we'll play the rest of the year."

Herbel wasn't always as positive about the game.

She tried playing basketball throughout high school but her knee problems made things difficult. As a junior, she finally finished the season healthy and helped New Town reach the Class B state tournament.

Two years later, she began tapping into her talent and learned how to utilize her frame at Williston State College. There, under the tutelage of coach Hunter Berg, she impressed Fridley, who began his career at WSC before coming to DSU.

"We got a steal," Fridley said. "There's a lot of teams a division above us that certainly missed out on a girl who can play at their level."

While Fridley is happy to have Herbel, she's just as happy to have another coach who cares about her development as a basketball player.

"When I went to Williston, coach Hunter Berg, he definitely pushed me to play how I am now and coach Fridley is getting me that much better," Herbel said. "I've got to give those guys credit for making me who I am now because I wasn't really that good in high school, just the height. That was it."

DSU point guard Ashley Emmons said having Herbel -- who Fridley steadfastly believed would help turn things around before she even arrived at the school -- has made her senior season much more enjoyable.

"I was just excited to have someone in the middle and then she got here and she proved everything that was said about her," Emmons said.

Emmons, a 5-foot-5 speedster, expected Herbel to have an impact in the post. However, she never thought she would be getting another player to help run DSU's uptempo offense.

Despite her frame, Herbel has proven she can get up and down the floor and help create in transition.

"You've got to push yourself in those instances," Herbel said. "You can definitely push yourself when you know you have to."

Fridley said getting Herbel the ball early and often could be the key to DSU's success throughout the conference season.

"We've got to find her. The games we haven't found her early, we've struggled," Fridley said.

That's fine with Herbel, who believes she still has room for improvement.

"It's going pretty well, I guess," Herbel said. "I just need to push myself a little bit more and work harder."