Kardinal spreads her wings

Kenai's Benson takes reins of Colorado high school hoops program

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

There is no question that Mendy Benson left her mark on Kenai Central High School.

Benson, who graduated from Kenai in 1993, authored an impressive prep career that included two 50-yard freestyle swimming state titles and a state basketball crown while she was a Kardinal.

But as Benson is showing in her first year as a basketball coach and Spanish teacher at Chaparral High School in Parker, Colo., there also is no question that Kenai Central left a significant mark on her.

"I think my success at Kenai gave me the confidence and self-assurance to allow me to believe in myself, and make me believe I could do anything I put my mind to," Benson said Wednesday by phone from Parker, a suburb southeast of Denver.

"It's obviously helped me throughout my life, and it's helpful here. I'm giving these girls a role model that I don't know that they've had before -- a strong, competent young adult."

Since graduating from Kenai, Benson has seen a lot of new people and places. After starting out with the Kansas State basketball team, Benson transferred to the University of Oregon, where she was a four-time NCAA Tournament participant from 1994-1998.

She was the team captain and second team Academic All-Pac 10 Conference during the 1997-98 season. In May 1997, she picked up her degree in Japanese, with a minor in Spanish, from Oregon with a grade point average of 3.55.

But despite all those new people and places, many of the teachers Benson had while at Kenai still have considerable influence on her.

One of those people is Craig Jung, who coached Benson in basketball at Kenai Central.

"I still use all the screening drills I learned from him," Benson said. "A lot of the fundamentals Craig taught us never left, they were just added on to at other places.

"I try not to cuss as much as he did, but when I do the first cuss words out of my mouth are the ones he used. He gave me my mouth."

Jung, now retired, good-naturedly said he had no comment on the cussing. On a more serious note, he said Benson using his drills shows how constant basketball is over time.

"Those drills weren't anything new I invented," Jung said. "It's something some other coach taught me. It goes on and on forever. There's not much new in the game of basketball."

Thus far, Benson's squad has a 2-4 record. Chaparral is a school of about 1,400 students.

"The school reminds me of Kenai in a weird way," Benson said. "It's the smallest school in the division for the biggest Colorado schools. We can play schools with 2,800 students.

"In another way, it's kind of like Skyview a few years ago. It just opened -- it's in its third year -- and this is the first year of seniors. We're building tradition and getting players to understand what it takes to compete at the Class 5A level."

Benson said she was ready for the relationships with players and X's and O's that coaching requires, but said she wasn't quite prepared for all the organizational tasks that coaching requires.

Jung said it is common for a first-year head coach to be surprised at all the time-consuming tasks that go on behind the scenes.

"When you're on the road Friday and Saturday and you get home at 3 a.m. in the morning, on Monday there's still 30 kids in the biology class that need to be taught, and there's still papers that need to be graded," Jung said. "All that stuff doesn't go away.

"In addition to that, you're keeping track of athletes. A lot of people don't realize what a huge sacrifice coaching in high school can be."

Benson said she gets by with a great support system, including assistant coaches, family and friends.

Benson's mother, former Skyview principal Marlene Byerly, knows all about the rigors of teaching and coaching. She said she and her daughter shared several long phone calls during Benson's first few months at Chaparral.

"What she's coming up against are the same things as every first-year coach who teaches," Byerly said. "What you see -- the lesson, practice or the game -- is the tip of the iceberg in terms of work.

"Coaching and teaching takes a lot of preparation, thought and work ahead of time. That's all stuff people don't see, but that's what makes a good teacher or a good coach."

Basketball is not the only area where Benson's days at Kenai Central are still impacting her.

"I probably apply more of the teaching stuff, actually," she said. "My models are people I had when I was at Kenai like Liz Burck, Sue Maurer and Kathy Lucky.

"I definitely find that the best teachers I ever had were at Kenai Central High School. I find myself saying the little things they said all the time."

Benson also still puts the swimming skills she learned from people like Maurer to good use.

"Sue Maurer, who was the swim coach then, had a huge influence on my life," Benson said. "That's still the thing I do if I ever need a workout. I jump in the pool to work off some stress."

While Benson loves teaching and she enjoys where she's at now, she still has goals that may take here elsewhere someday.

"Being Alaskan, I always wanted to check out Colorado," Benson said. "A friend of mine said Alaska is like Colorado on steroids.

"Alaska's landscape takes it to another level, yet Colorado doesn't have some of the drawbacks of Alaska -- like the dark, really long winters.

"I don't know if I'm sold on Colorado for life."

Benson was an assistant basketball coach at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., in 1998-99 and if a college came calling again she said it could be hard to turn that down.

She also wants to get a master's degree and live overseas again.

"She's always had a wanderlust," Byerly said. "She's probably been in more foreign countries than people my age. It's part of who she is."

Benson spent a couple months this year in Chile teaching at an orphanage and also has been to Australia, Canada, Southwest Europe, Greece, Japan, Mexico and Turkey.

She tries to return to Alaska at least once a year and hasn't ruled out moving back to the state sometime in the future.

However, she is not so busy looking ahead that she's not noticing what she already has.

"I'm really blessed with a good situation right now," Benson said. "It's a young situation. I have great coaches and great kids. We'll get there."

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