Coach and player reunite on opposing benches
When Presentation College visited the University of Minnesota, Morris Tuesday, an ordinary Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) women's basketball game had a certain extraordinary feel.
It was the annual return trip to Morris for former Cougar women's basketball standout, and current Presentation head coach, Alaina Benson, a member of Morris head coach Tim Grove's first two teams. A junior when Grove took over, Benson was getting set to play for her third head coach in as many seasons, and knew right away that the program would be heading in the right direction.
"From the get go and when I sat in on the interview process, everything he said, I just thought he is going to be the best coach for us," Benson said. "We really, really liked him right away, we knew he was a great guy, and that we were going to learn so much. And he did an amazing job, not only teaching us about basketball and Xs and Os, but he taught us so much about life and being dedicated to athletics, which has now carried over to the real world, and being dedicated to your family, and your faith, and your career that we all have now."
That career she speaks of came quickly after her time in Morris was through. In 2008 she wrapped up a career that saw her score over 1,000 points, and leave the program as the 14th highest scorer in its history. "It was the best time of my life," she said. "Our team was our family away from home, we did everything together. From being in practice, to being in classes to hanging out over night. Overall it was one of the best experiences of my life."
After a lone year as a graduate assistant at Northern State, she was tasked with guiding both the women's basketball and softball programs across town at Presentation.
"Coming into the program, I knew she was a good player," Grove said. "And she went on to have two great years for me. And then the Presentation job came open for her, and I think it says a lot about the confidence that they have in her, to give her the job with little experience."
She proved herself worthy, as in her first year, Benson led the Saints to a 13-15 overall record, with a 6-8 mark in the UMAC, getting there with plenty of help from her former coach. Tuesday, she will lead a 2-14 Saint squad against a 9-8 Cougar team, with each looking to get back in the win column after losses on Saturday.
"When I first took the job, of course I had all kinds of questions. He was the one I knew I wanted the help from, since he already helped me become a better athlete. Every question I had, he was always there to help me that first year, I knew there wasn't anything I couldn't call and ask him. He always helped with whatever I needed."
"I was willing to help her in any way that I could," Grove said. "She was so new to it, and I offered any help I could, from just setting up a practice to planning for games, anything."
It was a unique situation that first year, as Benson met up with her former team on three occasions, and the emotions obviously ran high. "It was really different to coach against my former teammates and my former coach. I was very, very nervous for that first game. I wanted Morris to do well, but at the same time I wanted my team to do well. So it was a tough game."
The Cougars got the best of Benson and the Saints in each of the two regular season games, as they went on to a 13-1 conference record and the 2009-10 UMAC title. But the postseason brought a third meeting, and a different result, as the Saints sprung the upset, winning 63-42.
"I just recall shaking her hand and giving her a hug and told her how proud I was of her," Grove remembered after the loss. "And as much as it hurt for me personally, it was to that same extent exciting for her, because I knew how hard she worked, and how big a win that was for her to come back in a playoff setting like that, to be an underdog, and for her team to play that well. It would have had to be a very special moment for her. I was very proud of her effort in that stretch the way her team played that week was outstanding."
"Afterwards it was really hard for me because I was so happy that we had won, but at the same time I kind of had a soft spot in my heart, I had this bad feeling," Benson said. "I was like, wow, I just beat my former coach and former teammates, and it was at Morris, where I used to play. I know my team was very excited, obviously, but for me it was a little bit harder."
Now with Benson in her third year with the program, the two colleagues still talk as much as ever.
"I think early in the season we talk more, just about the preparing for the season, how are things going as far as how new players are fitting in." Grove said. "Once the season gets going, we're in touch a lot through text messages. We had text message conversations Friday night and Saturday night heading into our game, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if we talk on Monday."
"We still have a very close relationship, we talk all the time," Benson added. "Everything that I know as a coach now is because of him. He has helped me through these three years, and I am thankful that I still have him that I can call up and still ask him any question in the world."
No calls or texts will be necessary on Tuesday, as they meet for the seventh time on the court. But on the court or not, it certainly won't be their last meeting.
"She's just a great kid and I appreciate all she did for our program," Grove said. "She's certainly going to be a friend for a long, long time."