Jenni Benningfield Interview

Between an interview for the Flagship and the Vanderbilt student-athlete's annual Christmas party for metro Nashville school children, Vanderbilt junior foward Jenni Benningfield talked with VandyMania about switching to power forward, Larry Bird, and that armband that she's been wearing this season.

VM: Jenni, this year you've switched positions. For a little background, could you give an overview of your basketball career, including your positions, going back to when you very first started playing?

Jenni: I started at the age of 5 playing in the YMCA leagues all the way up to when grade school started at St. Martha. That started in 5th grade there, so that'd be 5th through 8th. The summer going into my 7th grade, I started AAU and played that all the way up through high school at Assumption and different all-star teams and traveling teams, and then went to Vanderbilt. In high school I played both guard and forward -- probably more of a forward but sometimes I had to bring the ball up the court.

VM: Someone told me that once upon a time you were a guard.

Jenni: I was a guard when I was very little, very little.

VM: So you were always tall for your age?

Jenni: Yeah. I was taller than my second grade teacher when I was in the second grade. (laughs) I mean, she was really short, but come on, y'know? But, no, I've always been one of the tallest ones. A couple of my YMCA teams were all girls teams, so that was kind of fun. We beat an all-guys from my school, but anyway --

VM: Whoa whoa whoa, slow down! You were on an all girls team playing an all guys team?

Jenni: Yeah, it was a YMCA team. It was third grade. It was me and a bunch of friends. We were all girls, maybe one or two guys, but a couple of 'em quit because they didn't want to be on a team with all girls. So we were doing pretty good. You played every team, so one Saturday morning we ended up playing a team that was in my class, and they were all guys. We knew we were playing each other, so we were all talking smack, and we beat them 5 to 1. I'll never forget that game. I remember going back to school on Monday, and all the teachers knew about it. And one of these teachers pulled me over in the hall and scared me to death. She was like, "Jenni, come here!" I went over there, and she gave me high five, and she was like "Way to beat those boys!" So it was kind of cool.

So I played guard back in those days, but it's been a long time. But then I came to Vanderbilt and my freshman and sophomore year I played the 3 position mainly; a little bit of 4, but mainly the 3. Now I'm back to my natural position as a 4, so I'm a lot more comfortable now.

VM: People who are watching you this year think that you've taken to the change like a duck to the water. To show you what I mean, a Purdue wrote this after the game on Saturday:
. . . . I was most impressed by Jenni Benningfield. This is a girl just dripping with talent and an ENORMOUS will to win. IMHO, she is the backbone of the Vanderbilt team. No doubt other teams will pound and wrestle Chantelle with double and triple teams to wear her down all year. But to be successful, you need someone else to pick up the slack. Benningfield is SO tough either on or off the dribble, posts up and seals like a Glad bag and can literally hit from anywhere on the floor at any time.

I had read volumes about this girl but had never seen her play in person until today. Nothing against our girls but if I had to pick the best power forward in the country today, it would be Benningfield hands down. Plain and simple, she was awesome! . . . [I]n the 2nd half, JB got to work and WILLED her team back every time the Boilers looked to push the lead to double figures.

To sum up her game, imagine Larry Bird in drag! Suffice it to say, we will hear more of her...
Jenni: (as she reads silently) Wow . . "like a Glad bag" --that's nice. (laughs) Wow, that's an awesome compliment right there. "Larry Bird in drag" (laughs) oh wow .. . That's something to think about! That's funny.

VM: Anyway, that's the kind of response people are having. It seems like such a natural place for you. Do you see it that way?

Jenni: I think, like I said before, I'm a lot more comfortable now. And with Coach Balcomb's style, we're picking up the pace a little bit, and it's not only opening opportunities for me, but for everybody. There are a lot of people on our team who have been scoring great. In some games it's basically been evened out, and that's exciting. With Chantelle getting double- and triple-teamed and with us trying to find a way to get her the ball, it's opening up things -- like if Chantelle and I are having a good game, that's going to open it up for the guards, and if the guards are having a good game -- it's like a balance. I think that's what's really important.

Yeah, I've gotten some compliments on my game, but I'm not really worried about the stats. Like the guy I was talking to before said, "Your stats are completely different than your first years." I'm not really worried about that. My teammates have given me the ball in a position where I can score, along with the coaches teaching us the ability to do that and what to do in what situation and that type of thing. Our coaches are awesome, and it's been fun, but the thing is -- anybody else, any given game will do that. We'll step up, and everybody's ready to go. We're just so anxious in getting started and playing some great teams that it's so fun to know, and I'm so anxious because I know everybody in our practice works really hard. We compete. It doesn't matter to me if I have 15 points or 0 points, but people are going to step up. I think that's just the fun part about it.

VM: When we talked last year about volleyball, I asked what you like about it, and the first thing you said was, "The explosion of it." I thought about that, thinking that when you're out on the perimeter, it really is a lot more quiet, not as much contact.

Jenni: That's the thing that I've had to get used to. Down in the post, it's a lot more sense of explosion down there, because you're always hitting people, bumping people, making contact. It took me a while to get used to it, because I haven't been down there in a long time. But I think that's a thing I also like, banging with people now. That's a lot different, I used to not. I never did it that much. In high school, at that position people really didn't hit you that hard.

VM: I guess the time in the weight room helps.

Jenni: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Since the first years two years, I can tell a huge difference with that.

VM: Changing the subject, the armband you've been wearing this year. . . What's up with that?

Jenni: There's actually a couple of reasons. I did that back freshman through senior year of high school. I always wore an armband. That, and now that we're with a new coach, and it's a new situation, and for that -- but basically, the main reason is that I sweat so much. And like in warmups I'm already soaked because I sweat so much. It helps to wipe my hands off because I've got nowhere else to wipe it because I'm soaked, so that's probably the main reason but I just happened to wear it in high school.

VM: If you sweat so much, why didn't you wear it before this year?

Jenni: It wasn't allowed back then.

VM: One last question. That Purdue fan said your game's like Larry Bird's. If you think about all the college and pro players whose names people might recognize, who can you think of that your game is like, or who you'd like to be like?

Jenni: Honestly? I think Larry Bird's a good person to try to be like. I remember my dad growing up. He was a big Larry Bird fan, so we'd talk about him a lot. He's a good guy. But most important, he was a very smart player. He knew his strengths, and he knew what worked and what didn't work. And I think that's something that I've tried to do. That's a goal of mine, to make sure that I'm smart when I'm out there. And he always gave 110%, to never leave anything out on the court. But he was a smart player, and he knew his strengths, and so that's definitely what I want to be like. Not a bad comparison, I guess.

VM: Pretty cool.

Jenni: Yeah. Yeah. He was a great player, and that's what I want to try to be.

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