Hoops: Benz looks to lead women to next level

SEATTLE -– Cougar forward Kate Benz was a bit timid standing in front of a banquet room packed with Cougar faithful last month. The senior from Portland apologized for being nervous. Her angst is understandable. In a career that figures to rank as one of the best in WSU women's hoops history by the time this campaign is done, Benz has heretofore done all her talking on the stat sheet.

In fact, the first thing the 6-2 Kate Benz did behind the mic was deflect attention. Instead of talking about herself, Benz discussed freshman Colleen Betteridge, a 5-9 guard from Seattle who was a McDonald's All-America nominee out of undefeated Chief Sealth High.

Benz, though, is without question the centerpiece of a program looking to get above .500 for the first time in a decade.

The two-time All-Pac-10 honorable mention pick is the conference's reiging Queen of the Glass. For two straight seasons she's been the league's rebounding champion, averaging 9.1 boards per game.

She's on pace to shatter the WSU career record for rebounds, set by Cassandra Overby in 1984.

Last year Benz tallied seven double-doubles and had a career-high scoring day against Arizona State, with 24 points. She also became the first Washington State player in nine seasons to earn Pac-10 Player of the Week honors.

On the scoring side of the ledger, she ranks in the top 20 for career points at WSU and should break into the top 10 in early February. In addition, she's already in the WSU top 10 for blocked shots.

In short, Benz is on track to have her name uttered in the same sentence as the two greatest women's players in WSU history, Jeanne Eggart (1978-82) and Jenni Ruff (1993-96). Despite the impressive stats, fifth-year Cougar women's coach Sherri Murrell said Benz is not Washington State's most athletic player.

"She just works the hardest," Murrell told about 150 Cougar fans gathered in Seattle for the second annual basketball kickoff banquet in Seattle.

"She sees the floor exceptionally well and reads her teammates like a seasoned veteran," said Murrell, who has coached the Cougars since 2002. "Her understanding of the game makes her passing something special to see. She is an exciting player that Cougar fans are really going to have fun watching."

BETTERIRDGE IS PART of a new recruiting class ranked 39th nationally. Murrell said the Seattle point guard will see the floor early and often.

Last season, the womens' team went 8-20, hampered by injuries that narrowed the roster to seven players in final game.

This year, the team is so much quicker and faster, despite 10 of the 13 players being freshmen or sophomores, Murrell said. Freshman Nakejia Kelly was nominated as a 2006 McDonald's Top 100 All-American, as was freshman Jamie Roupp, who was also a Wendy's High School Heisman candidate.

Benz's expectations for the 29-game regular season?

"I focus on what I'm good at, and that's rebounding," she said. "I couldn't tell you how many career rebounds I have. People keep me up to date on records and stats.

"I just play because I love the game."

OUTLOOK IN A NUTSHELL: Murrell is succinct in assessing the Cougars' chances for a breakthrough season: "This is the year." She adds, "I feel like the team chemistry we had last year was amazing and it kept us together during the most adverse times ... we have the right people in place and that's key. Now it's just a matter of being confident."

In the last two seasons the Cougars has been involved in 17 games decided by six points or less. Since Murrell arrived on campus, the Cougs have cut their average margin of defeat by 33 percent.

GRAD COMMITS TO COUGARS: Auburn Riverside junior Katie Grad verbally committed to play basketball at Washington State University, giving the program its third Pac-10 recruit in the past two seasons. Grad visited Washington State on Oct. 22 and 23, and immediately accepted a scholarship offer from Murrell.

"I really liked the coaching staff," Grad told the King County Journal. "It's always been one of my top schools. It seemed like the right fit."

Grad averaged nine points, six rebounds and four steals per game last year (262 points in 29 games) and been a starter since her freshman year. She averaged 4.1 points during the 2004-05 season, helping Auburn Riverside earn their first Washington state tournament berth in school history.

"She's definitely going to have a breakout year," coach Adam Barrett told the King County Journal of the upcoming season. "There's no question Katie will have to step up and be more of an offensive threat."

Grad, who earned second-team all-league honors last season, is also an all-league soccer defender and softball outfielder.

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