Women's Hoops: Interview with Jenni Benningfield

After senior forward Jenni Benningfield returned to campus last week, she talked with VandyMania about her selection to the USA national team which will compete in the Pan-American Games in August.

In the first part of the interview, she talks about her experience at team trials in Colorado.

VM: Jenni, when did you first start thinking about playing for a USA national team?

JB: Well, you'd always read about it and see it on TV, the Olympics and athletes with USA on their chests, and I was like, "How incredible is that, to be able to play for your country?"

But I never really thought I'd be one of them. I always thought it was incredible that Chantelle and Ashley played for the US, and Zuzi played for her country. I always thought that had to be an incredible honor. And then a couple of months ago when I got the letter saying I had the opportunity of trying out, I just --

VM: The letter just appeared out of the blue?

JB: Yeah, out of the blue.

VM: You didn't apply or anything?

JB: No, I had nothing to do with it. I heard they had something for me in the office, and I needed to go up there ASAP, so I went up there and they gave it to me, and I honestly didn't know anything about it.

My coaches actually thought I was too old for it because usually the junior women's team is an every year thing, but the cutoff is January 1, 1982. Well, I was born October 6, 1981, so I was too old for that. But it just happened that this year was the Pan-American Games, where it doesn't matter how old you are as long as you are a U.S. citizen. So I kind of lucked out from that perspective that they fall in the same year, and I got invited. It's great. It's a great opportunity.

VM: If you look at rosters from Pan-Am teams in the past, traditionally it's been older players, like in their twenties, that play against the other teams.

JB: Yeah, we're playing against their senior teams, because they need to win the Pan-American Games to qualify for the Olympics.

VM: Ah, this is Olympic qualifying for them.

JB: This is a big deal for them because they need to qualify for the Olympics, where for us -- we're just going to knock 'em out, basically. Our senior team's already qualified for it. It's going to be interesting because they're top-notch people and obviously it's intense for us, too, but it's a little different . .

VM: -- you're playing for honor--

JB: --yeah, honor and for all the hard work you've put in. It's going to be neat. It's going to be so neat. I'm so excited. I don't even know--it's still not hit me yet, I don't think.

VM: When did you get the letter?

JB: Oh, it was after the season. It was a couple of weeks after the season. That's what I worked for all May, getting in shape and shooting.

VM: What kind of things did you do in May that you wouldn't have done otherwise?

JB: I'd be doing it anyway, doing the workouts we do for school, but I did a lot of extra shooting. I tried to shoot a lot every day with the men's ball, I worked out with the men's basketball. I did a lot of sprints, that kind of thing. I tried not to take too many days off. And I had to be careful what I was doing, too, because I didn't want my knee to act up.

So it was good. It was stuff I'd normally do, but I was trying to do it at more of an intensity level. I think usually in May I don't do as intense because I know when I'm here it's going to be-- I still work hard, but I guess I had something to look forward to and something I wanted really really bad. So I think that's what made it so much more motivating to work out while I was at home.

VM: When I talked to you Saturday after the morning session, you sounded pretty happy. At that point did you have any feeling as to whether you were going to make it?

JB: See, I kept going back and forth. I didn't want to get my hopes up because I knew -- it's an honor to even be invited, but I was not wanting to be satisifed with that. So I didn't want to get my hopes up because of the fact that this is my first time ever trying out, and there were a good portion of those girls who had been there several years and have played on the team several years that I ended up up beating out. That to me says a lot because I didn't know-- it was just a matter of what the coaches wanted.

VM: Did you have any idea of what the coaches wanted?

JB: I didn't know, but figured that -- 'cause I played several positions there and I showed a little bit of versatility, so I think that was definitely a plus my way.

And Coach Foster even pulled me over to the side and he was like, don't try to play-- I mean, there are so many athletic, fast-running quick girls that play more of an athletic game. I think I'm athletic, but not so much athletic as some of them, and I was trying-- he was basically like "Play your game because that's what makes you different from everybody else." You know, not try to do things that are definitely not my strength.

So I think I just tried to really focus on, for one, just going all out, and two, just really playing my game. And if I make mistakes, I make mistakes, and not let that go on to the next play, which obviously brings you down. But I think when I talked to you I just felt satisfied that I was doing what I came to do, and whether I made the team, it was up to them.

VM: Then Saturday night, after I talked to you, you had a good session?

JB: Saturday night, I had a pretty good session. Yeah, I did. Saturday night was just intense. I was trying to walk around that one, trying not to think about it. Everyone was so intense about it. No one wanted to talk about it.

VM: Is that kind of a funny feeling, because you're friends, but you're also competing against each other?

JB: Yeah, but -- but because I've never been there before, a lot of the athletes who had been there several years said that it was different this year because, for one, there were so many people there they didn't really know what to expect, but two, everybody was so supportive, everybody was giving each other high fives, helping each other up off the floor, saying "good game", whereas a couple of years ago, a lot of people didn't say anything to each other because it was so -- we all know we're all competing against each other, but it was also a chance to get to know and make friends. And it also shows the coaches that you can interact with your teammates, because that's important obviously. But that made it so much more fun, just being able to just laugh and joke and have fun with them while you're competing and being intense, so it was kind of a balance. But it was cool.

VM: Then Sunday morning came, and they said they didn't need another practice session to determine the teams?

JB: Yeah. Well, we found out late Saturday night that they were just going to announce it. Everybody was going to meet and have their practice set on, and if your name was called, you were going to have practice. Everybody else would just get ready to go home.

So they pulled us all together, and we sat on the floor, and one of the committee members read off the names of each team and five alternates that could be called up to either team if something happens to somebody. And then we had practice, and everybody else got up and left.

It was kind of wierd because you could tell that people were upset, and you didn't know what to say to anybody. And then after our practice, we went back to our dorms and people were sitting there waiting before they left, and -- it wasn't that they didn't want to say "good job", it was just kind of an awkward position. But, you know, it was a lot of fun. I think everybody respected everybody, so -- a lot of friendships were made.

VM: So you got to practice a little with the team?

JB: Yeah, we just went over some defense and some of the drills just to let us know what to work on and what to expect. We didn't really practice that long or do that much, but it just kind of allowed us to be together for an hour or so. We talked with the coach, and then we had to do paperwork, and they gave us all of our information and interviews so we could get out of there because people had flights home.

When we go up there July 17, we have practice that night and we play the next day, so we're going to have to get better as we go along. It's not like we have a week to practice and get good. We have to really just bond and click from the beginning, which I think is going to be a challenge, but I think it can be done.

* * * * *

In Part 2, JB talks about the players who will be her teammates on the national team.

VandyMania.com Top Stories