Jenni Benningfield Competes for National Spot

Some people spend their Memorial Day weekend at the beach. Some people relax at home, visit relatives, catch up on yard work or just chill out at the grill or in front of the TV.<p> But for Vanderbilt senior forward Jenni Benningfield, it's none of the above.

Instead, the Louisville native is spending Memorial Day weekend at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Benningfield and 57 other top collegiate basketball players are competing for spots on two national teams that will compete in international competition this summer. One team will compete in the World Championship for Young Women to be held in July in Croatia, and the other will compete in the Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic in August.

The trials began on Thursday. After some preliminary activities, including checking in to the complex, physicals, and photos, the first two-hour session was held Thursday evening. Both Friday and Saturday featured two-a-days, with athletes reporting to the gym at 8:30 for shooting, stretching and treatments before the 9-11 a.m. morning session.

After a break to handle media requests, eat, relax and attend informational sessions (in which, among other things, the athletes learn what foods not to eat because they might cause a positive drug test), it's back to the gym for the evening session. Rosters for both teams will be announced on Sunday.

Benningfield narrowly missed the age cut-off for the World Championship for Young Women team, so she and a handful of other the other players are eligible only for the Pan-Am team. But in the trials sessions, no distinctions are made, and all the athletes are competing against each other for positions.

"It's awesome," said Benningfield on Saturday afternoon. "There isn't one player here who doesn't deserve to be here. Every play is so competitive and so intense. And it's great getting to see the other side of other players, some you've played against."

Case in point is Tera Bjorklund. Bjorklund, a 6'5 senior center from the University of Colorado, and Benningfield have met twice in their college careers. As a freshman, Bjorklund and her Buffs visited Memorial Gym in the 2001 NCAA tournament. After Vanderbilt and Colorado defeated Idaho State and Siena in the first round, the Commodores knocked the Buffs out of the tourney with a 65-59 victory in the second round.

Then, less than a year later, the Buffs returned to Nashville for the pre-season WNIT, and once again, despite 25 points from Bjorklund, Vanderbilt sent them home with a loss. Now as seniors, Bjorklund and Benningfield, along with Duke's senior superstar, Alana Beard, are roomies at the trials.

The trials provide an opportunity to see some of the other top players in college basketball in action. Kansas State center Nicole Ohlde made an impression on Benningfield, who played with her during a scrimmage. "She's awesome," said Benningfield, "with a great inside game, great outside game." Stanford's Nicole Powell also stands out as a "great player, great person."

And it's also an opportunity to be re-united with old familiar faces, too. Former Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster, who brought Benningfield to Vanderbilt and was head coach during her first two seasons as a Commodore, is in Colorado Springs for the trials.

Since he's head coach is the head coach for the World Championship coach, Benningfield knew ahead of time that he'd be attending the trials this weekend. "I didn't know how it was going to be," said Benningfield. "It'd been more than a year since I'd seen him."

But any lingering concerns were quickly allayed when Foster greeted her with a big hug. And familiarity has provided some advantages, as Foster is running some of the same drills that he used when he was at Vandy.

"I think that's an advantage because I know the little things they're looking for," said Benningfield. "He's had me and some of the Ohio State players demonstrating and explaining. He's told some stories from the past . . . it's been great."

When the rosters are announced on Sunday morning, Benningfield hopes that she is among the chosen few. "But either way," she says, "it's been an awesome experience."

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