"She absolutely is a co-MVP of this team," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said in a recent interview. "The Most Valuable Player is the one you can’t live without and the one you can least afford to lose."
And in team sports, leadership is one thing a team cannot live without, and enthusiasm one of the things a team can least afford to lose. Bennett-Swanson provides both to DePaul.
"Leading on a team where you don't play is challenging, but everyone really appreciates when you are enthusiastic about what they are doing and celebrate them and their big improvements and their little improvements out on the floor, and always being super-positive about them," Bennett-Swanson, one of four co-captains on this season's squad, said in a recent interview. "I lead through a consistent enthusiasm."
"It is very difficult to be a leader when you don’t play," Bruno said. "It is very tricky to earn the respect of your teammates. She is such a good human being toward her team. She has figured out that the team needs leadership off the court and on the court. She is constantly working to educate the younger players."
It was most likely not a quiet household while Bennett-Swanson was growing up. Her father, Shane Swanson, and her mother, Susan Bennett, both attended college on music scholarships, he playing the trumpet, and she playing the flute. Bennett-Swanson followed that musical path, playing the oboe and becoming an Illinois Music Educator’s All-State musician while at Vernon Hills High School. But the oboe was a no-go with the arrival of collegiate demands.
"After my senior year of high school I had a senior concerto and then I came to DePaul and started cranking out academics," Bennett-Swanson said.
Bennett-Swanson hit the notes and the nets while at Vernon Hills, becoming the school's all-time leading scorer (1,394), rebounder (718), and shot blocker (280). She led her team to a 33-3 record as a senior. And the classroom was, if not geographically next door to the gymnasium, also right there; she was named an Advanced Placement Scholar with honors.
"All players are required to have certain character traits when we recruit them: that they be great teammates; that they be unselfish; that they be ultra-competitive; and that they step up in the big moment, which means they want to work," Bruno said.
Bennett-Swanson has been injured since she arrived at DePaul, and Bruno states that her ability to be on the floor has much to do with those injuries.
The teenage years are where people form and firm the beliefs they usually carry with them for the rest of their lives. And that formation and foundation was set solid by Bennett-Swanson’s parents.
"I think paying attention to other people is important to our family and seeing what you can do to make a difference," Susan Bennett said in a recent interview. "I think Meri has always been very involved, no matter what age she was, with lots of kids, teammates, and classmates. And I think those experiences probably led her to understand people and have a compassion for them."
And making that difference has been front and center in the Bennett-Swanson household.
New York Life, where Shane Swanson works as an executive, underwrote 1,000 tickets to the "Girls in the Game," a non-profit organization that promotes sports and fitness among Chicagoland girls, for the 2013 Big East women's basketball conference tournament.
DePaul reached the Sweet 16 last season, and it is reasonable to recall the Blue Demons' performances against James Madison and the subsequent upset of Louisville as to how they got to the final 16 teams. And it is realistic to realize that the road to the Sweet 16 was not built in a day, but was laid brick-by-brick, with construction starting in October.
"Our practice team is composed of two things, so that we work with the men who come in and help us prepare, and then the second team works really hard to make sure our team is prepared and that we know our roles," Bennett-Swanson said.
"When we play against the male practice squad, I try to make sure everybody plays," Bruno said. "When [Bennett-Swanson] is on the sideline, she is coaching the younger players."
Preparing the team and helping coach the younger players. What does that add up to when March Madness arrives? No. 3-seeded Louisville learned the answer.
"I believe respect and loyalty is not something you ask for or something you demand, it is something you can only give," Bruno said. "You can give service, loyalty, and respect, and the more you give it, the more you get it. You give it and then that earns it from your teammates, and that is what she has done."
Women's college basketball games last, roughly, a net two hours, and teams are left with the other 22 hours to fill the day with academics and whatever else. And it is that “Whatever Else” that Bennett-Swanson has also excelled.
"Coaches can and do come up with team-building ideas, but there is nothing like team ownership of a team," Bruno said. "You can have winning teams when coaches lead, but ultimately your best teams are when the teams are player-owned and player-led. She does all those types of [team-leadership functions] and has earned the respect of her teammates. Bringing teammates together is an art, and it doesn’t happen with every team."
One of the most exciting things in a basketball game is a game-winning shot. And on the other end of the excitement spectrum is pre-game stretching.
"[Bennett-Swanson] turns [something as mundane] as stretching into fun," Bruno said. "She will announce ‘who we are nominating for Player of the Day? All in favor say ‘yes.' "
And if there is a comedic element sensed in Bruno's statement, there should be: Bennett-Swanson is fun and funny.
"I am not sure [where the comedy] comes from," Bennett-Swanson said. "Since I was quite young our family has always been very sarcastic with one another, but not in a mean way. My grandfather on my father's side is one of those people who can put together a joke on the spot. I am not funny like that, but [my humor] is more of noticing little things and little puns. It's not a calculated thing, but something to keep things light, especially with this being such an intense sport."
Bruno, from 31 years of coaching at DePaul: "It’s huge to be able to be serious and laugh at the same time."
And Bennett-Swanson takes that humor seriously.
"On an individual level, people have to get their own minds in a space where they can play. (Fellow teammates) Jacqui [Grant], Jess [January] and I all think we are very funny, but I don't see my role as keeping us loose, but instead keeping us in a really fun environment. I think sometimes we get so into the process of two plus two equals four and this is how we are going to win, that when we actually complete our task, let's take a minute and [appreciate] that we just did this and let's take a moment to enjoy that."
It is often in collegiate programs that the first word of the term “student-athlete” is given lighter attention than the second word. Not here.
Bennett-Swanson has been a member of DePaul's Dean's List every quarter she has been at DePaul; she is a two-time member of the Big East All-Academic Team; she is a three-time recipient of DePaul's Shirley Becker Academic Award; she carries a 3.90 grade point average as a political science major in the DePaul honors program; and she is set to graduate summa cum laude this June.
And even with academics, the core beliefs she was taught while growing up remain with her.
"Meri approaches school as she approaches life- with an unbridled enthusiasm for learning," said DePaul's Assistant Director of Athletic Academic Advising, Jill Hollembeak, said in a recent interview. "Her positive attitude is infectious and she makes those around her better. She lives out the Vincentian mission of DePaul and takes seriously the perspectives of others."
The Vincentian mission, "It is not enough to do good, it must be done well," is one that Bennett-Swanson will take with her when she leaves DePaul, and along with what her parents instilled in her when she was younger, will serve her well.
"I am taking the next year off to study for the LSAT (law school entrance exam) and hopefully start law school in 2018," Bennett-Swanson said. "I want to try to work for a political organization to heal economic and racial divides in Chicago. Immigration law and international trade law [are two areas of the law] I find fascinating."
And one thing she has learned at DePaul that will make all this possible concerns the mechanisms on the wall and on the wrist, the ones that spin and steal away what they measure if they are not properly harnessed. Bennett-Swanson has learned that harnessing.
"On a very foundational level, and being a student-athlete and having the ability to balance academics and athletics with all of the things that athletics brings, knowing what I am able to accomplish in a working hour. The time efficiency that I have been able to learn already is something seemingly arbitrary, but for example, how many pages I can read in one hour."
Bennett-Swanson has also learned from the man who never sits down during a game; who never stops instructing his players; and who never stops caring about them, while they are at DePaul and after they leave.
"From a Coach Bruno perspective, it is the root of kindness with which he coaches and teaches the DePaul spirit to all of his players. I have always held this heightened, top-tier respect for him and his ability to never suggest a player is bad. It has always been packaged and cared in a way of him saying 'you need to compete harder, or the reason you are not functioning at the highest level I know you can function is because of [something you are doing or not doing].’
"That lesson is a kind way of teaching people how to get better at things. That teaching style, that we are all capable of a lot more than we imagine, is something I always want to lead with if I am ever in a capacity to lead people.”
"And also how Coach Bruno sees all people equally with that kindness. It doesn't matter if you play 35 minutes or if you are sitting on the bench, everyone [on this team] gets treated as a person first, such as holding the door for every single one of his players. When you are treated that equitably, you want to treat each other that way. It is a program-wide philosophy of 'no one is better as a human being than anybody else.”
"One of the most important leadership elements that I have learned from coach Bruno is consistency."
The halfcourt line is the halfcourt line. But other areas of demarcation, such as leadership, are not as clear cut. And sometimes it is that area that is more important to a team in a sport that is perceived strictly as a numbers game. Bennett-Swanson won’t leave DePaul with her name in the record book. But what she will leave there with is a remembering, and a remembrance, of a mark nonetheless.
"We have had a lot of great leaders at DePaul, and Meri is right there with the best of them,” Bruno said.