Alumni Update: Jenni Benningfield

Four years after her graduation from Vanderbilt, Jenni Benningfield is playing professional basketball in Spain. When VandyMania's Whitney D traveled to Spain recently, she caught up with the former Vanderbilt star to talk about her experiences in Spain and to take some photos for the folks back home.

Former Vanderbilt star Jenni Benningfield is playing her fourth season in the Liga Femenina, the highest level of women's basketball in Spain. She began her international basketball career in Madrid, then played a year in Burgos. Last season, she played for a team in Ibiza, one of the Ballearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

This year, she is playing in Cadi La Seu D'Urgell, a new arrival in the top Spanish league. At the end of each season, the two teams at the bottom of the standings of the Liga Femenina drop down to the second division, and the top two teams from the second division move up to the highest level. This season, Cadi was one of the two teams that moved up from the lower division.

So the biggest objective for her team this season is to maintain the team's status as a top division team. The season got off to a solid start towards that objective as the team held a record of 5-5 in early January. Then Jenni, who was averaging 14.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, tore a muscle in her calf and has been sidelined for the past month, and the team has slipped to 5-10 since her injury. She is expected to return to the court this weekend.

In this interview, Jenni talks about her experience in Spain, with photos following.

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VM: Tell us about your team, your coach, and your teammates, and how the team handles the language barrier.

JB: My head coach, speaks very little English. He knows some words. Sometimes when he's trying to make a point, he tries, he really tries. It's kind of like Spanglish sometimes, and kind of funny when he does it, but we really appreciate it when he does try.

But out of four years, he's probably my favorite coach, and the best coach I've had since I've been here. He's a young guy. He's very energetic. He's into the games. He's got a lot of passion. When he does get angry, he really makes a point. He's not one of those coaches that yells just to yell. We all respect him a lot. He knows the game, and he was a coach for the Spanish national team this summer, so he's got a lot of experience.

He's just a great guy. I love his energy. I love the fact that when I'm running down the court, and I look at him, he's not just sitting in the chair, not into the game, not focusing. He's putting in as much energy and effort as we are, and we all appreciate that. In practice he'll stop and actually show us things and get into it. It's cool to see him so involved with us. He's very dedicated to our team. I enjoy his energy because I feed off of it.

But my assistant coach speaks English, so he can translate for us. He's a great guy. He's coached a little bit for the lower division men's teams and helped out with them, so he hasn't had a whole lot of experience with coaching, but he's learning a lot.

Our physical therapist, or trainer, speaks fluent English. He's great. He really knows what he's talking about, and if he doesn't, he's always researching or asking someone. With my injury, I feel good under his care. We've been plagued by injuries so, he's had his work cut out for this season. But he's great.

It's a good group of guys. They're young and have good energy, and they're positive. I enjoy going to practice, I enjoy spending time with the team, and the team's great. That's what makes the experience, your teammates.

We have a very diverse group of teammates. I guess technically we only have four Spanish players. They're great -- they help out with showing us around town, making sure we know where to go if we need help and what not. And then we have three Brazilians. Two of them are married to Spanish guys, so they have Spanish passports. The other Brazilian is one of their sisters. They're hysterical together. One of them, Helen [Luz], the oldest, speaks English. She played in the WNBA, and she helps out, a good leader. Then we have Sandra [Pirsic] from Slovenia, Sarah [McKay] from Canada, but technically British and has a British passport, and Megan [Moody] who is Australian but has a British passport as well.

They're just a fun group to be around. I'm always laughing, so that's what I enjoy, making the job and the experience fun. I'm just enjoying it, because if you don't enjoy it, then there's no point in being here. It's not fun being away from everything you know. If you're not having fun, it's not worth it.

VM: Many players from the USA who play international basketball often play in different countries from year to year. This is your fourth season in Spain. Why Spain? Why do you keep coming back?

JB: People keep asking me that. For one, it's the fact that I call this my second home. I now have friends here. I feel like I have family here. I feel comfortable coming here. I know the language, I know the culture, I know the league. I know how basketball's played.

Going from one country to another, it would be hard to start all over again. For example, I feel like I have an advantage when I come over here. I already know what to expect. I don't have to start all the way over and be out of my comfort zone. There are times when I'm out of my comfort zone here, of course, but not as much. I'm very confident and comfortable here now.

The first year I didn't know anyone. Now I know somebody on every team. I know the cities. I just really enjoy it and feel really comfortable, and I have friends here. I like the league. It's very competitive. It doesn't get much better than this, and it seems like each year the competition keeps getting better and stronger, and that's what I want.

So who knows what it will happen next year, whether it will be Spain or not, but I've had good experiences for the most part in Spain so why change something if it's going well.

Jenni with 6-8 teammate Sarah McKay, a 2007 graduate of Indiana University.

Sidelined by a torn calf muscle, Jenni has missed the past four games. Rehabilitation is going well, and she's expected to be back on the court this weekend.

Jenni spent last winter on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza off the eastern coast of Spain. This season, she's playing in La Seu d'Urgell in the Spanish Pyrenees only a few miles from Andorra, a tiny country squeezed in between Spain and France.

This year Jenni has an apartment and a car to herself. The car, like most cars in Spain, has a standard transmission, so along with all the other things she's learned in her professional basketball career so far, driving a stick shift is one of them.

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Photos copyright 2008 by Whitney D for Top Stories