Where are they now? VU's seniors of 2004

Hillary Hager, Jenni Benningfield, Jutta Korkko and Venessa Ferragamo were Vandy's women's basketball seniors of 2004. With Senior Night 2005 close at hand, Whitney D. takes a look at what the seniors of 2004 are doing one year after putting college basketball aside.

A year ago, the four seniors of the class of 2004 were looking forward to Senior Night, post-season tournaments and graduation. One day after practice, they posed for a class portrait and broke into laughter when asked, "What are your plans after graduation?"

"The never-ending question!" they replied in unison.

Jenni Benningfield, Jutta Korkko, Venessa Ferragamo, Hillary Hager

A year later, they're scattered around the world, and there still aren't any "final answers" to the question. But despite some occasional bumps in the road, each of them is a little further along in the journey towards the answer.

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Hillary Hager is closest to the gym where she played for four years. In fact, she still spends many hours a week there as a graduate assistant with the women's basketball team.

As many people know, Hillary's ultimate goal is to go to medical school, but by the time the season was over, it was becoming apparent that that goal would have to be delayed.

"I applied to some schools and didn't get in," Hillary said after practice one day in January. "So I went up and talked to [Assistant Coach] Kristin [Schneider], probably a couple of weeks after the season. She was like, 'So, have you heard from med schools?' I hadn't heard from everybody at that point, but it was looking pretty bleak.

"And then a couple of days later I met with Coach [Balcomb], just to talk to her, and she told me different options that she had come up with. She wanted to help me, for which I was very grateful. It turned out that it was a graduate assistant position."

Being a graduate assistant means attending graduate school, so Hillary turned to Dr. David Bader, a tenured full professor in the biology department. Since Dr. Bader often works with student athletes who are interested in the medical field, Hillary had talked to him often throughout her undergraduate years. After Balcomb's offer, Hillary turned to him once again for help in figuring out the best course of action.

That turned out to be graduate studies in the Developmental and Cellular Biology and working in Dr. Bader's research lab. The course of study begins with an interdisciplinary program for graduate students from nine different departments within the medical sciences.

Most of her fellow graduate students are involved in their scientific pursuits all day, but when her work in the lab and in classes is over, Hillary heads back to the Memorial Gym.

Her duties as graduate assistant are varied. In the office, one of her primary duties is helping the staff with the office work required for recruiting.

"I didn't realize before but a lot of stuff really goes into recruiting behind the scenes," Hillary explained. "We send faxes to girls, we do mail-outs, we write letters, all different kinds of things like that. So I help with that."

On the court, she fills in during practice when a player is out with an injury and most often is one of the guards on the practice team. During games she's on the bench with a clipboard.

Her job on the bench is to break down the offenses.

"Kristin makes me a little chart with all the offenses, and I keep track of what offense we run, and if we score out of it or if we get fouled out of it, offensive rebounds, if we score off offensive rebounds, 'and ones', if we score on those, out of bounds plays, pretty much all the offensive stuff.

"And so that way, throughout the course of the game, you can chart what's working, what's not working, what you've run, what you haven't run that you haven't tried."

From the outside, it might look as if Hillary is living in two worlds, but it's actually three different worlds. Besides having a foot in the basketball world, her current graduate course of study positions her either for entering medical school or for pursuing a PhD in biology.

Plan A for Hillary is still to go to medical school, but if that path doesn't work out, her busy life this year will already moved her forward on Plans B and C.

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After leaving Nashville, Venessa Ferragamo returned home to Orange County, California. Jutta Korkko, found her way there, too. When Vanderbilt played in the Woodland Hills Hilton Classic in Malibu in December, Venessa and Jutta watched their former teammates win the championship game

Jutta's living in a nice area of West Hollywood on a quiet street. "For five months I wasn't doing absolutely anything," she said in December. Then she got involved in some model and commercial work.

"One was a promotional television commercial for Fox Sports Net, which is playing right before the women's games," she said Another is a print ad for Coca Cola products - Minute Maid, Sprite, Coca Cola, Dasani -- that's coming out for March Madness.

"There will be pictures in that, big billboards and stuff," she said. "It's going to be good stuff. But there are a lot of people, so I don't know how much my face is going to show in it. There's a girls team and a guys team, and we play defense and offense. It's going to be fun.".

Jutta is looking into the possibility of doing more modeling and commercial work, getting professional photos done and talking to agencies.

"The business out here is so competitive," she said. "Everybody comes out here for the film work and the commercials, so I don't know how much I'm going to be able to do, but I'm going to see what they say."

"I'm a little more low profile," Venessa said, comparing herself to Jutta. She's back in Orange County, not too far from Malibu. Her Plan A is still to go to medical school. She's studying for MCATs and plans to apply to medical school.

In the meantime, she's working part-time as an aide in a physical therapy office and has applied for a medical research position.

Venessa also is still involved with basketball. "I'm coaching a 5th and 6th grade boys basketball team which is pretty fun," she said. "I'm having a lot of fun with the kids."

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Jenni Benningfield is the farthest from Memorial Gym. After being drafted in the second round of last year's WNBA draft by the Charlotte Sting, she was released just before the season began. She spent the summer in Nashville working out, teaching private lessons and working basketball camps.

Late in August, she signed with the Indiana Fever for the final three weeks of the WNBA season. Although she was placed on the injured reserve list, she practiced with the team and got a taste of life in the WNBA.

As soon as the Fever's season ended, Jenni left for Spain to play professionally for the Club Estudiantes de Baloncesto in Madrid, where she's currently averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game to lead the team in both categories.

"My life here as a professional basketball player has been a great experience thus far," Jenni wrote in an email recently.

"I have been able to focus all of my attention to basketball without as many distractions, as well as spend time doing fun things like site-seeing, and learning the culture here in Spain.

"It has not always been easy, for it has definitely been an adjustment. The style of play here is very different than what I have always been accustomed to playing, but just like anything else you do that is new to you... you have to have an open-mind, try it, and work hard at it until you get it right.

"I have been very lucky to be in such a great situation. I love the city of Madrid... it is the biggest city in Spain with lots of things to do and see. The team is great... it reminds me of the VU team- we get along great and hang out outside of basketball. The food is really good as I have been learning how to cook as well.

"The hardest part for me has been the communication barrier. I am learning a little bit everyday with the help of books, Kate Starbird (my roommate) and my teammates. Some of them can speak a little bit of English, as well as my assistant coach, but not everyone so at times it makes it challenging to know what is going on.

"My teammates and I are making a point to help each other learn from the other, which has been fun. You would be amazed of how quickly you can learn something when you are put in a situation when you really need it to get by.

"I cannot even explain how great it is to put all of your focus and work on one thing... basketball, while getting to see the rest of the country, meet new people, get better as a basketball player, and really grow as a person. I feel very blessed and trying to make the most out of each day by trying new things and learning as much as I can."

Jenni's Plan A is to continue to play basketball professionally. After the season ends in Spain, she'll go to training camp with the Indiana Fever for another shot at making an opening day WNBA roster.

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Click on photos to view a larger image.

Photos of the Estudiantes on a beach in the Canary Islands and in the Fountain of the Dolphins celebrating the victory that earned the team their first-ever trip to the Copa de la Reina courtesy of Jenni Benningfield.

All other photos copyright 2004-2005 by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com.

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