A new era in the Wood River girls' basketball program tips off tonight as the second female coach in the team's history will be calling plays from the sidelines.
Former University of Oregon women's basketball captain Mendy Benson, 33, most recently the head girls' coach at Crystal Lake Central High School in Illinois, will be the Wolverines' eighth girls' cage coach in 34 seasons. She has named 13 players to the varsity team: four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.
"The girls' attitudes have been incredible. They are working really hard, are positive and supportive of each other and truly want to learn and improve," Benson said.
Coming off a 2-18 season, attitude and willingness to work hard are key components to turning the team around, but Benson believes a return to the game's fundamentals will provide the foundation for the team to build on.
"I've never been a coach that gets overly pre-occupied with winning. I believe that if you do the right things, the winning will take care of itself," Benson said. "We need to focus on what we can control; getting ourselves better and working on decreasing turnovers, beating the press, our shooting, ball-handling et cetera. As long as we improve every day, I think we'll be winning already."
Last year's second-highest scorer Samantha Engel (6.3 ppg), a 5-10 forward, will co-captain the team with 5-8 sophomore guard Taylor Hayes.
"Sam Engel probably put the most time into improving her game this fall and Taylor Hayes has improved quite a bit from last year (from what I'm told) and has quite a bit of experience at the 1 and 2 positions. She works hard, is very determined, and provides excellent leadership on the floor," Benson remarked.
"My other seniors, Allie Freund (5-2 guard), MacKenzie Brown (5-9 forward) and Angela Coleman (5-9 forward) don't have a ton of experience, but will provide depth at different positions," Benson assessed.
"My juniors, Alex Lindbloom (5-3 guard), Monica Garceau (5-11 forward) and Grace Lagodich (5-8 guard) are probably my three most physical, aggressive players who will definitely provide a spark for us."
The varsity team features three freshmen, but in an interesting twist the ninth graders are some of the most experienced players in the team and won the league championship in eighth grade, compiling an undefeated record.
"Kaitana Martinez (5-6 guard) and Cheyenne Swanson (5-11 center) live for basketball and played probably the most of any of our varsity returners over the summer. They also have had a lot of success and a winning attitude that will carry over to the rest of the team," Benson said.
Sophomores Brooke Bowers (5-6 guard), Maddie Gove (5-9 guard/forward) and freshman Haylee Thompson (6-0 center) are listed as sliding players, and will see time on both varsity and junior varsity.
Benson said she did not come in with a pre-determined system, but thinks a motion offense will best suit her players.
"It's one (motion offense) with a lot of structure, design and rules. Unfortunately, that means in the beginning our offense will look a bit rusty, but hopefully we'll be executing at our best when it matters most in February," she said.
Fundamentals are important to Benson and helped her achieve success in her four-year career at Oregon.
"I was a role player who could play solid defense and so little things like setting a mean screen. I didn't really have PAC 10 ability. The reason I played was because I had been very well coached in fundamentals."
And so it will be with her program, although Benson stressed she believes she is not only a coach for the girls, but a role model as well.
"I'm a teacher of the game first—I believe I will get what I emphasize—and I overemphasize effort, fun, game understanding, defense, and fundamentals. I also think the girls need a role model—and I hope to be the best one I can."
Bruce Bowers is the assistant varsity coach. Kevin Stilling heads up the junior varsity team with Tristan Bowers, Kelly Chapman, Katherine Dwyer, Jade Glenn, Cassi Gorringe, Taylor Gove, Allie Hesteness, Kylee Richmond and Hunter Thompson.
The ninth grade team features Mercedes Alvarez, Maddie Bates, Cookie Benson, Lauren Bryant, Emmalie Dion, Rebecca Jaramillo, Megan Morrell, Natasha Morse, Lucy Paisley, Michaela Rodriguez, Hallie Taylor and Karina Zamora. The team will be coached by J.C. Nemecek.