Getting to know Jenni Benningfield

Between preparation for the NCAA tournament and completing three class projects, Vanderbilt sophomore forward Jenni Benningfield took the time to visit with VandyMania last week.

Vandy fans know who Jenni is. She's #42. She's the one who takes the charge, shoots the three, pumps her fist, reverses the ball, feeds the post, fights for the rebound, and wears the black brace on her right knee.

But when it comes to media coverage, she's usually in the background. She's mentioned for her "hard-nosed play", or "complementing perfectly" Vanderbilt's marquee players, and that's about it. In the lull before the NCAA storm, it seemed like a good time to find out a little more about her. So, armed with some photos and files, Vandymania met her before practice last week to sit down for a chat.

Since Jenni's mom and dad, Bill and Martha, are regular fixtures in the parents' section in the baseline seats near the pep band, family seemed like a good place to start. In the two years that Jenni has played at Vandy, they've only missed one home game and travel to most of the road games, too. Jenni's three older brothers are frequent spectators, too.

Jenni looks at the first photo. Who's who? "Scott is the oldest one," she says. "He's going to be 31 this July. Tony is the youngest brother. He's the one who's closest to me. He's going to be 24. My middle brother Dan, he's going to be 28 this year, and he lives here in Nashville. He's getting married June 1st. And my mom, Martha."

Scott and Dan are the musical talents in the family. "Dan's has been really into piano most of his life," says Jenni. He's the keyboardist for kilowatthours, a band that originated in Louisville. Dan moved to Nashville last summer to be closer to Jenni and his fiance, who's completing medical school at Vanderbilt. A June wedding is planned, then they'll go wherever her residency takes them.

Scott is "definitely the business man," says Jenni. "He really really works hard. Scott's very religious, and he's a very caring guy. He's very unselfish. He does a lot of things for people." And Tony's the wild one. He's the one who removes an article of clothing for each 3-point shot that Jenni hits in a game. "He's the one that strips, yeah," says Jenni. "It's so funny -- everybody has come up to me and said stuff to me about it. They all think it's funny. I think it's cool. It kinda gives a little jazz to things."

"I'm close to all three of them," she says. "Not many people can say that their siblings are that close, but I can, and it's so much fun. In most of my high school years, they were living together in a house about a mile away from me in Louisville. I always went over there, and it was a cool place to hang out, not just with my brothers but friends. So that was kind of neat, because I'm so close to them, I talk to them every day."

Was staying close to family a factor in deciding to come to a college relatively close to home? "Yeah, definitely," Jenni says. "My parents have definitely given up so much and have done so much, I just wanted to be able to give something back to them, for them to enjoy. I want them to be able to be a part of it, and for me to have that feeling of having them being a part of it. They've always been so supportive."

Another photo. "Now that was a lonnng time ago." Jenni studies the picture. "Ohmigosh, sixth grade, maybe? Sixth or seventh grade? Maybe? Probably sixth grade. Yeah, that's our backyard. We call it the 'Court of Chaos.' We were always back there playing, the whole family. Very competitive. We had some very good times and very bad times out there."

This particular day was Thanksgiving Day, 1997. Jenni's dad Bill shot some video, but says that this particular day was very laid back, unlike some others. Does Jenni remember that day? Apparently so. "I think me and Tony beat them," she says. But the day is notable for another reason. In basketball-mad Kentucky, the newspapers publish their high school basketball previews on Thanksgiving Day. As a freshman, Jenni burst onto the high school scene in the state tournament, and both of the major Kentucky papers have featured her in their girls basketball preview.

Looking back, Jenni says, "It was very interesting. It was kind weird seeing yourself in the paper, and like, omigosh, people are reading this and know who I am now and know what I can do and blah blah blah, but my family has been very supportive and have been there for me from day one."

Is that helpful in keeping a level head about things, when you're 16 and all over the newspapers? Jenni nods. "My family's never let me get cocky. I've never, at least I don't think I've ever, been cocky or big-headed because my thing is that you can never be satisfied, there's always something you can get better at."

But looking back to high school, basketball is only half the story. Volleyball's the other.

At this point, your faithful Vandymania reporter must confess that prior to a few months ago, she knew next to nothing about prep or collegiate volleyball. So prior to talking to Jenni about volleyball, a little research seemed to be in order. In case other readers are just as ignorant, here's what you need to know to give you a frame of reference.

The first thing to understand is that when it comes to volleyball, Assumption High isn't just any old school. Saying "Assumption High has a volleyball team" is roughly the equivalent of saying "the New York Yankees are a baseball team." It's true as far as it goes, but doesn't begin to tell the story.

Assumption hasn't lost to a Kentucky team since 1994. That's currently 171 straight matches, including 7 straight Kentucky state volleyball titles. Assumption is so dominant in-state that they make the tour of national invitational tournaments, where they have also been highly successful. In 1996, Jenni's freshman year, Assumption earned their first national title. Since then, they have been a perennial top 10 team and re-captured the national title in 2001.

One of the reasons for Assumption's success has been the Kentucky Junior Volleyball Association, known as the KJVA. Founded in Louisville in 1981, the KJVA is an AAU-affiliated volleyball club with teams from ages 12-under through 18-under. KJVA teams travel throughout the country competing in tournaments from December through June, during the school volleyball off-season. KJVA teams are perennial participants in the AAU nationals and have won numerous national titles across the various age groups.

Participation in KJVA allows girls interested in volleyball to receive year-round coaching by playing both school volleyball during the prep season and club volleyball in the off-season. Assumption's volleyball coach, Ron Kordes, says that club volleyball has played a key role in helping Assumption to become so strong by helping to develop players. All of his players at Assumption played club volleyball.

All except for Jenni.

"I played all kinds of sports in grade school, but when I went to high school, I thought, 'I'll try volleyball -- I like it and a lot of the stuff you do in volleyball is similar to basketball, jumping, timing and everything like that; I'll try that so I don't get burned out on basketball'." she says. "I knew the Assumption team was very good. I didn't really think I had a chance because they all played for KJVA, and they've been national champions year after year so I didn't know if I really had a shot."

It turned out that she did. "In my freshman year, I played freshman and JV and moved up to varsity, and the next three years I played varsity, and actually had a good roll in it."

During those years her name began to appear regularly on All-Tournament teams, including the state championship tournament teams as a sophomore and junior and the Nike Challenge, generally considered the most prestigious tournament in prep volleyball.

Looking back, she says, ""It's very interesting to me because . . . I always wondered what I would be like if I'd played KJVA or where I would go, because I got a lot of offers my junior and senior year about playing volleyball. It was tempting, but at the same time I'd been playing basketball much longer and I thought I'll stay with that. But it's always kind of interesting to think, what could I have done if I'd . . but then again, what would have happened to my basketball career? So, I don't know. But I'm glad I played. But I truly miss it, though. I miss playing volleyball so much."

What is it about volleyball that she misses? "The explosion of it," she says. "Just hitting the ball. And you get a lot out. You get a lot of built up out, and just the whole atmosphere of it. The team was great at Assumption. All of them are my best friends. I still talk -- They're all playing in college now and just the whole atmosphere."

Jenni looks at a scan of Volleyball Magazine's prep All-Americans in the spring of 1999, her junior year. "Oh yeah. I was so surprised that I made that. That's what made it even harder, like, wow, I could play top notch volleyball. I had never really had put much . . . because honestly, I didn't touch a volleyball until the day of trials. Then I stopped as soon as we won state. I mean, I played around with Tony a little bit, but I never really picked it up."

As it turned out, Jenni's active volleyball career had come to an end. In the spring of her junior year, she discovered that she had osteochondritis dissecans of the right knee. "It was something that had bothered me throughout the whole [basketball] season," she says. "It came on and came off, and I wasn't really going to do anything about it during the season because it wasn't hurting me too bad until after the season. . . I'm glad it didn't stop me, because that year I made it to state runnerup."

But it mean did surgery in June, rehabilitation over the summer, and missing her senior season of volleyball. Looking back, she says, "That was kind of a hard summer because the summer before your senior year you want to go to all these camps, and you didn't how it was going to affect your college, people looking at you and all that kind of stuff. It's been interesting, so hopefully it'll stay healed."

And then Zuzi Klimesova, Jackie Munch and Katie Smith walk into the gym. It's time to put the photos away, time to get ready for practice. With the NCAA tournament at hand, there's work to be done, and now's the time to do it.

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Jenni and the rest of the Commodores meet the North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday night at approximately 8:30 CT in the Midwest Regional semifinals in Ames, Iowa. The earlier semifinal pits the Tennessee Lady Vols against the Brigham Young University Cougars. Both games will be televised on ESPN/ESPN2.

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