SEATTLE — The chance to play basketball at Seattle Pacific University was a dream come true for Katie Benson.
But two days into her college career, that dream was painfully put on hold.
Benson, a 2009 graduate of Snohomish High School, was participating in a routine warmup drill in the early minutes of her second SPU practice that same fall. As she drove to the basket, she came to a jump stop — “Something I’ve done a billion times in my career,” she said — and her left leg buckled.
She ended up on the floor, having ruptured her knee’s anterior cruciate ligament. Her season was over, and for the next several months she instead endured surgery and a difficult rehabilitation.
“When I first tore my ACL,” said the 23-year-old Benson, “I tried to be brave at the beginning. I was saying, ‘Oh, no. It’s going to be fine.’ But as the year goes on you realize, ‘This sucks.’ It was really hard.”
Benson had been looking forward to playing a final season with her older sister Sydney, then an SPU senior, and there was great disappointment “at having that dream literally taken away on the second day of practice,” she said.
But in sports, as in life, the darkest hours of one day are sometimes the prelude to a brighter, better tomorrow. And so it was for Benson, who is having an outstanding senior season for the Falcons in 2013-14 — a season she would not be having if she had not been injured and forced to redshirt in 2009-10.
Looking back, Benson says her year on the sidelines gave her a new and much-needed perspective.
“It was probably one of the most beneficial years I’ve ever had,” she explained. “I realized that my identity is not (solely) in basketball. I’m more than just a basketball player, and I think that’s the biggest thing I took out of that year. Obviously I love playing, but at the same time I know that it’s going to come to an end someday and that it’s not going to shatter my entire world.”
The 6-foot-2 Benson, a forward, returned in the 2010-11 season and played well enough to be named Freshman of the Year in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. She has led the Falcons in scoring each of the past two seasons, and in 2012-13 she also led the team in rebounds, blocked shots, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage, and was an all-GNAC first-team selection.
Through 10 games this season she is on her way to career bests in several statistics, including team highs in scoring (21.4), rebounds (10.6), blocked shots (1.6), field goal percentage (.514) and steals (2.5).
SPU head coach Julie Heisey had an eye on Benson all through high school, and by the time she arrived on campus “we had big visions for her,” Heisey said. Other schools, including some in the then-Pacific-10 Conference, were also paying attention, “so it wasn’t like she was this kid who was under the radar. But at the same time it’s all potential. It’s what you do with it, and I think that’s where I’m most proud of Katie.
“She’s really evolved her game. She’s so much more than a shooter. She can attack off the dribble, she can pull up, she can post, she’s becoming a better passer, and I’m really excited to see what a great defender and a great rebounder she’s become in the last two years. Those are things that’ve really changed.”
With Benson leading the way, Seattle Pacific is hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009-10, Benson’s redshirt season. That team, which included Sydney Benson and fellow Snohomish alum Daesha Henderson, finished 27-4, won a GNAC title at 15-1, and reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
This season, the Falcons are soaring once again. Despite losing their last game, a 74-65 decision against 10th-ranked (NCAA Division II) West Texas A&M on Saturday, SPU is 8-2 overall. The team — which includes starting guard Suzanna Ohlsen, a Monroe High School graduate — was ranked ninth nationally, but will likely slip in the next poll due to the recent defeat.
Though Seattle Pacific lost senior guard Aubree Callen, a two-year starter, to a knee injury, and has senior guard Mechela Barnes trying to overcome her own injury issues, “I still think the sky’s the limit,” Heisey said. “But it’s a little bit more unknown because we’re relying on two freshmen rather than two seniors. And with two players being injured, our margin for error is smaller.
“But at the same time, this is a special team, I feel like this is a team that can compete for a (league) championship. And if you win the GNAC you can compete for a region championship because I think that’s just how good our conference is.”
For Benson, the thought of closing her career with a GNAC title and perhaps a trip deep into the NCAA Tournament is appealing indeed.
“We have a ton of potential,” she said. “We’re really well rounded as a group, and collectively we’re really focused. So I definitely believe we’ll get to the NCAA Tournament, for sure. We’re all hungry and we all want that to happen.
“And for me personally, that’s always what I’ve dreamt about. Just going out with a bang. Going out on top. That’s literally what you dream about as a player and it would just be so incredibly special. It would mean the world to me.”