Signing day at Wood River High School. Senior Haylee (seated)Thompson signs her letter-of-intent to play at Utah State University. From left, head coach Mendy Benson, Hannah Belloli, Haillie Taylor, Kaitana Martinez, Cheyenne Swanson were all present to support Thompson. Express photo by Willy Cook
Last season's impeccable run was capped off this week when senior forward Haylee Thompson signed a letter-of-intent to play at Utah State University as a freshman next year.
But for the 2011-12 Wood River girls basketball squad, a new year brings higher expectations and even bigger question marks to start the season.
Wood River is coming off a 21-3 season, a Great Basin Conference Championship, second-place finish in the 4A Idaho State Basketball Championship and the Sportsmanship Award.
The good thing about the upcoming season is the familiarity that encompasses the team—a family of sorts, bonded by the commonality of the sport of basketball.
With news of Thompson's scholarship to Utah State, it would be easy to ignore the fact that there's still a season to be played.
However, this season won't be easy.
Head coach and returning 2011 Great Basin Conference Coach of the Year Mendy Benson won't be able to watch her team's early growing pains. That's because she'll be dealing with her own.
Benson is seven months pregnant and was expected to be on maternity leave come December. The team and assistant coach (husband and Wood River football coach Kevin Stilling) were prepared to take on the necessary challenge of not having Benson roam the sidelines because of her pregnancy.
However, back on June 21 her pregnancy took a scary twist of fate.
The symptoms began as a simple headache. However, within 48 hours it felt like someone taking a baseball bat to Benson's head, or as she described it, as "painful as giving birth, but in my head."
Anxiety and fear obviously amounted. Benson was experiencing a brain bleed, which was later diagnosed as a cavernous malformation—a vascular abnormality of the central nervous system. It consists of a cluster of abnormal dilated vessels, which are a red to purple, almost a raspberry color. Benson also began experiencing blood clots in her legs.
Due to the bleed, Benson's activity and stress levels have been monitored closely, thus committing her to an early-induced pregnancy over Thanksgiving in Portland, Ore. She'll be giving birth three weeks earlier than expected.
Thankfully, a fill-in coach isn't too far away.
Stilling, coming off a playoff year in football, will take the role of head coach for the time being.
Watching his wife struggle, it was hard on Stilling.
"Initially, it was easier to be me because I didn't realize how bad it was," said Benson. "I didn't realize how close I was to death. It was pretty hard on [Kevin]."
She'll receive better on-hand treatment in Portland due to the fact that a bigger hospital most likely has dealt with an issue like hers.
There's a small chance that her brain will bleed again so she needs to be at a hospital where she can receive the proper treatment if that should happen.
For the time being, basketball takes a back seat.
"It's made me a little more worried about the baby," Benson added. "I'm a little more worried about not being around for the baby. I just think that what's going to happen is going to happen."
The couple don't know the sex of the baby and thus don't know the name of it either.
Because of the stress of coaching, Benson hasn't been able to watch her team practice.
However, she said, it turned out to be a good thing that she married a fellow coach.
"The nice thing of being married to another coach is that [he] just gets it," she said.
The mutual understanding is everything.
"You do for your husband or wife what you normally wouldn't do," said Stilling. "I normally wouldn't dive into two sports if it weren't for her."
Benson is in her 12th year of coaching basketball (her fourth with Wood River). However, she claims basketball season is a special time for her and Stilling.
"We love doing it together. It's almost like our second family."
Benson's influence on the team can be echoed through Thompson's scholarship to Utah State. Benson pushed Thompson hard as a tenderfoot when Thompson was just learning to play basketball as a freshman.
"I don't know any other coaches," said Thompson. "She preached fundamentals and I focused on that. She knew I had the physical ability, but she also knew I need the mental toughness."
Benson saw great potential in Thompson. Over four years of coaching, she continually held Thompson accountable for her own potential, making her realize how good she could be.
Thompson grew up playing soccer while basketball wasn't even on her radar. But thanks to Benson and her fundamental coaching, there will be a Wood River alumna playing Division 1 basketball next season.
Utah State was one of the first colleges to contact Thompson by phone. Calls from the school became more frequent and soon campus visits were in order.
Thompson said what attracted her to Utah State was the similarities between the way Benson coached and the way she'll be coached in college.
"They're losing all their posts this year," said Thompson. "They had similar practices and similar styles of play."
Utah State coveted Thompson's style. Utah State loves how she can move so well down the floor for a tall girl. It also doesn't hurt that Thompson loves to rebound, something that is music to any basketball coach's ears.
Thompson, however, will have to go in her senior year without her mentor.
The head coaching duties won't fall solely on Stilling's shoulders. Assistant coach Fred Trenkle has been there to help in a very dire time.
"Fred has been instrumental in helping us prepare for this year, and I really couldn't do what I'm doing without him," said Stilling. "I couldn't have asked for someone more knowledgeable and helpful to fill in during Mendy's absence. Fred has sacrificed a lot to help out this program and his assistance is not something that the girls or I take for granted."
Along with Benson's absence, Wood River will be without reigning 2011 Great Basin Conference Player of the Year senior point guard Kaitana Martinez. Martinez will be out until January with an MCL injury.
Losing Martinez and her 17 points per game will reshape the team. Martinez is also Wood River's all-time single-season scoring leader with 408 points.
"This year's team must be a ball-controlling team," said Benson. "KT was the best point guard in the state last year. She created so much on her own. So much of the offense came from what she did on the fly."
Without the floor general, Wood River must trust not only in themselves to create plays, but coach Stilling and Trenkle to ensure a balance.
"We have to work the ball around and get the ball to our bigs," said Benson.
The loss of Martinez to start the season will keep other teams guessing.
According to Benson, there will be three separate teams Wood River will put on the floor this year—the team without Martinez, the team learning to play with Martinez and the team with Martinez.
With the heart of the team out, it will consequently force others to step up to the role of leader.
With Benson out, it will force the team to grow into mature young women, grasping a challenge set by fate.
This season's expectations go further than repeating a 21-3 record. They go beyond basketball and beyond wins and losses. This season will test the will of a possible champions.
2011-12 season begins Monday
The new season will kick off on Monday, Nov. 14, when Wood River travels to Kimberly.
Last season, Kaitana Martinez led the Lady Wolverines with 17 points per game. She also led the team with a 32 3-point buckets (Wood River had 58 as a team).
Haylee Thompson will roam down low as she returns for her senior season. Thompson had 11.9 points per game; however, it's her 6.8 rebounds per game that will be most valuable.
Also returning will be seniors Cheyenne Swanson (5.4 ppg), Haille Taylor (2.1 ppg). To fill out the roster it will look like this: seniors Cookie Benson, Emmalie Dion and Lucy Paisley, juniors Hannah Belloli and Lily Richards, no sophomores and two incoming freshman, Rory Cole and Ciceley Peavey.
Last season, Wood River was 12-0 at home and 9-3 on the road. The team averaged 48 points per game and allowed 38.1 points.