The Next Generation
Oct. 16, 2008
By Larry Watts
Benson and Woodson. Together again.
Indiana University's Assembly Hall will be rocking again Friday night as the Cream and Crimson faithful flock in for Hoosier Hysteria.
While the highlight of the evening will be the first basketball practice of the Hoosier women's and men's basketball teams, the 7 p.m. tipoff will be the Indiana volleyball team, featuring the daughters of two Hoosier All-America legends, taking on Ohio State.
Middle blockers Ashley Benson, sophomore daughter of Kent (1973-77), and Lexie Woodson, freshman daughter of Mike (1976-80), are two of the key building blocks for second-year coach Sherry Dunbar as she tries to bring the Hoosiers back to respectability in the Big Ten. Although the Hoosiers have been to the NCAA four times in the past 13 years (the last time in 2002), they have not finished higher ninth the past five years.
At 1-5 in conference play (9-9 overall), the Hoosiers again find themselves struggling for survival in one of the toughest volleyball conferences in the nation. But Dunbar simply points to last year's Hoosier Hysteria, when 10,000 fans watched Michigan State top her squad, as a perfect example of how quickly a season can turn around.
"Michigan State came in here at 1-7 and they wound up finishing 10-10 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (of the NCAA Tournament)," the highly energetic Dunbar says. "That shows you it can happen if you keep believing. We'll probably have 5,000-6,000 people in here to energize this place at the start of our match."
Following last weekend's losses at Minnesota and Iowa, Benson said the team held a meeting to reassess its goals.
"That loss to Iowa (in five games) was a real slap in the face and I think that's what we needed," the 6-foot-3 Benson says. "Our goal was to "Fight for 12" (December representing the NCAA Tournament), so we have revised it to "Fight for Now."
"We will fight for every point, every set, every game and every match. We have to get things back on track."
"I was really impressed when they came to see me after that meeting," Dunbar says. "They know they have the talent and they want to do the best they can, but they have to stay in the moment. It's still my program, but they have taken ownership."
As the daughters of famous Indiana University athletes, Benson and Woodson knew there would be great expectations when they signed their letters of intent, but the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.
"My father actually wanted me to go to -- hold your collective breath Hoosier fans -- Kentucky," says Benson, who is a lifelong Bloomington native. "He thought it was a better volleyball program at the time, but I wanted to come here.
"I knew my dad was big here, but I just told him I had to make a name for myself. I can't keep being known as Kent Benson's daughter. That's the way I wanted it.
"There are so many members of my family here and Bloomington has always been my home," she added. "My favorite color has always been red and I love the campus. It just works out perfectly."
Benson certainly made a name for herself in her freshman season when she set the Hoosier freshman record for blocks with 140, sixth best in Indiana history, and posted a .267 hitting efficiency. And she has already taken her game to new heights this season, registering 105 blocks with 193 kills (.303 hitting efficiency).
"Ashley is a highly competitive player, but she came in here inexperienced at playing with the elite players on a regular basis," Dunbar says. "But we knew she was the future of the program and we had to throw her out there for on the job training.
"Her vertical is now up to 10-3 and she is twice the player she was last year. But the thing I love the most about her is she could care less about her stats if the team doesn't win. That shows me her true competitive nature and that she's able to look at the big picture rather than be concerned about All-America or all-conference."
The 6-foot Woodson, who calls herself "short but powerful for a middle blocker," had more national exposure playing with the A5 Mizuno club team in Atlanta. As a result, she was getting heavy interest from Georgia Tech, Auburn, Clemson, Long Beach State and Middle Tennessee as well as Indiana.
"My parents didn't try to influence me, but I really fell in love with this place when I came here for my official visit," she says. "I met coach Dunbar and thought she had a great personality. She gave it to me straight, that this was a rebuilding program, but she was going to get Indiana back on the volleyball market. I loved the opportunity to be part of helping this program grow because I want to grow as a person."
Dunbar and her staff have been bringing Woodson along with baby steps, inserting her into the lineup for three rotations at a time. She has notched 46 blocks and posted 62 kills.
"What really impresses me about Lexie is her heart, she thinks about everyone," Dunbar says. "This is still a teaching experience for her, but she's learning every day. She knows how hard this is and how aggressive she has to be, and that's great for a freshman to know those differences.
"She's still lacking a little focus in the matches, but she is tremendous in preparation. She really studies the other team's offense, but now we have to create that balance and get her to transfer that knowledge over to the matches without thinking about it. We don't need her to be a big offensive weapon this year, just concentrate on being a big blocker."
Although they are each creating their own niche in Hoosier athletics, neither player is afraid to seek a little fatherly advice.
"I know I can always call him when I've had a rough day," Benson says. "It really helps to talk it out with him. He had been through the same situation. There were times when he went through hell and back. He just tells me to fight through whatever is bothering me and it will pay off in the end."
"The best advice my father has given me is to keep fighting," Woodson says. "You may hurt your back, but it's all about whether you can push yourself through the injury and be there for the next fight and be ready to help your team. Of course, if I break my leg, I don't think he expects me to get back up."
Dunbar, an Indiana native who grew up during the peak of Hoosier basketball mania, even admits it's a little chilling to look across the floor to see Kent Benson and Mike Woodson, now the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, sitting among the rest of the fans.
"You look at Mike Woodson and he's a dad, not the Atlanta Hawks coach," she says. "He's totally into the matches and fired up like any other fan. And he'll bring former players, like Scott May, or even members of the Hawks just to watch us play volleyball.
"What I have found out about them is they are very caring and supportive individuals. They know exactly what it means to play for Indiana University and the expectations. They have been able to translate that to their daughters."