From part of a co-op to one win to an appearance in the regional semifinals.
By Harry Lipsiea
Standing in the hallway at the Devils Lake Sports Center, Kevin Bennefeld couldn't help but think back to how far the girls basketball program has come.
The veteran head coach recalled struggles of a young team. For instance, a memory of playing Hillsboro-Central Valley four years ago comes to mind.
"We had a hard time getting the ball across halfcourt," he commented about that game. "There wasn't much of a fastbreak transition game of any kind. We were just so young."
What a difference a few years can make. Half a decade after starting a girls basketball program, Warwick will be playing in the semifinals of the Region 4 tournament Tuesday in Devils Lake. The team co-oped with Four Winds prior to the 2012-2013 season.
It's taken time to build this point. In their second season, the Warriors finished 1-19. Each year, however, the team has improved. After winning five games in 2014-2015, Warwick had a breakout campaign last year; winning the regular season District 7 crown with a record of 13-6. The team, however, was unable to get out of the district tournament after losing two games.
"Each year, the girls have made a lot of progress. We have made steps forward every season," Bennefeld said. "It's been great that our players have started to see their time and effort pay off with success on the court."
It's been an enjoyable experience building the program, Bennefeld pointed out. A seasoned coach, he has a lengthy resumé under his belt. Prior to becoming the head girls coach, he led the Warwick boys program as recent as 2012.
When Bennefeld found out that the Warriors would be fielding a girls team, he was all in.
"As soon as I heard that, I said I would take it," he said. "People think I'm crazy, but I enjoy coaching girls basketball a lot more than boys basketball. It's about teaching and learning the game, not just athleticism."
The coach credited his players for sticking it out through the hardships of a first-year team. For instance, the core of this year's team have been through the ups-and-downs of the program. Experienced players like Whisper Gourd, Rayanne Leaf, BryAnn Robertson and Madison Leaf have seen extensive court time during the last four seasons.
"We had our struggles," Madison Leaf admitted. A sophomore, the guard has been a regular in the starting lineup since her seventh-grade season. "It was tough losing all the time, but we just stuck with it."
The athletes have put in a lot of time. Bennefeld has encouraged his players to go out for cross country in the fall and track in the spring. Year-round weight lifting and conditioning has also made a difference.
"These girls have been super to work with. It's been a lot of fun," he added. "From all the extra time in the weight room and different sports to camps. they have put a lot of effort into it."
With extra effort has come added expectations for the Warriors.
After a good year in 2015-2016, she noted that the team was focused on taking its game one step further. It started with one goal, Madison Leaf pointed out.
"To make regionals," the sophomore pointed out. "That was really important to us."
It's been a season to remember for the Warriors. After facing tough opponents early on, the team started 0-3. However, the slow start didn't set back Warwick one bit. From there, the squad won 15 straight games. Along the way, the program received votes in the state poll for the first time.
For the second season in a row, the Warriors won the regular season District 7 title. With a 61-51 victory over Four Winds-Minnewaukan in the quarterfinals of districts, the Warriors qualified for its first-ever regional tournament appearance.
"We have learned to grow as a team. As players, all of us have different games," Madison Leaf said. "The last two seasons, we have started to learn what our style is as a team. It's been a lot of fun."
Despite a tough loss at the hands of Harvey-Wells County in the title game, Warwick came into the Region 4 tourney read to go. In its quarterfinal contest, the Warriors used a very quick start to walk away with a 56-33 victory.
"It feels good to think about this team winning at regionals," Bennefeld, who is assisted by former LRSC player and Warwick graduate Samone Motley, stated. "These girls have come so far and so has this program."
On Tuesday evening, Warwick faces the state's top-rated team North Star. It will be a tough challenge, but the Warriors are used to being the underdogs.
"I told the girls to let it fly," he said. "There is nothing to lose."
With a win or a loss, Bennefeld sees an enjoyable experience ahead for his team at the Region 4 tournament.
"If we lose, we will get to have some fun in that consolation game," he said. "If we win and play in the championship, that would be fun too. No matter what happens, it will be a great experience for these girls."