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Vernon Hills Tuesday, 1/8/13 Vernon Hills Meri Bennett-Swanson (50) fights for a loose ball during the second quarter of Tuesday evening's game against Stevenson. Stevenson handed Vernon Hills their first loss, winning the game, 50-43. | Brian O'Mah
The Vernon Hills girls basketball program has a motto.
“Our coach (Paul Brettner) emphasizes it a lot,” said junior Lauren Webb. “That a talking team is a winning team.”
Considering the Cougars have won 45 games the last two seasons, they’ve done quite a bit of talking.
This season, Meri Bennett-Swanson is taking the lead speaking role. Throughout the Cougars’ game against Stevenson on Jan. 8, you could hear the 6-foot-2 center’s voice careening through the school’s home gym.
Consider this: At the scorer’s table, Bennett-Swanson is shouting instructions on defensive alignment before entering the game. When she does check in, she barks words of encouragement to junior Sydney Smith, who was having an off-shooting night. After a transition basket, the DePaul-bound Bennett-Swanson sprints back on defense, yelling “let’s go, come on!” to her teammates, fists clenched.
“(Stevenson) was a big game, big competition,” Bennett-Swanson said. “For 32 minutes, I needed everyone to be in the game.”
The vociferousness is consistent with the Cougars’ speak up-stand up culture. It’s also part of the evolution of Bennett-Swanson as a player and leader.
A varsity call-up as a freshman, she has seen the metamorphosis of the Vernon Hills program. It won 17 games in 2009-10, losing in the Class 3A regional finals. As a sophomore, the Cougars lost again in the same round. Last season, Vernon Hills won 26 games and made it to the 3A title game.
As the program has grown, so has Bennett-Swanson. Part of her development has been skill-based: her spin-back move, a mini-hook in the lane, comfort in using both hands. The other part has been less tangible.
“This year I’m trying to be more aware of everything,” Bennett-Swanson said. “In game huddles, (tell my teammates) ‘this is what coach said about this and this.’ Just being more of an echo of what he says.”
Said Brettner: “Part of enjoying senior year is being at your best at all times, trying to make every day a good one. She’s really doing a nice job with that.”
And not just by talking, but doing. A classically trained oboe player, Bennett-Swanson plays in three musical groups affiliated with her high school: an orchestra band, a wind ensemble, and a woodwind quartet.
Her passions — basketball and music — may not be logical cohabitants, but they act as synergistic devotions for Bennett-Swanson.
“With both things, you are striving for perfection every time,” Bennett-Swanson said. “You never have a perfect practice, you will never play perfect. But being comfortable with your mistakes moving forward are important threads between the two.”
Vernon Hills’ quest for perfection was doused in a loss to Stevenson. Bennett-Swanson was not crying about the defeat, but speaking to her teammates about how the circumstance was more an opportunity to embrace rather than run away from.
“What does this undefeated team do after they get their first loss? Hang their heads or go back to practice, hard-working towards that next win?” Bennett-Swanson said. “It’s just (one) game. We are still Vernon Hills.”