Tuesday, April 23, 2024

LG’s Graceann Bennett lost her mom & the coach but thrives in last year as forward for Georgetown

By Ben Westcott, Chronicle Staff Writer

Lake George High School 2019 grad Graceann Bennett has had to overcome hardship on the way to a career season as a fifth-year senior forward for the Georgetown University women’s basketball team.

During February of her junior season, her mother Michelle Bennett passed away at the age of 53
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“That experience was, and I think continues to be, kind of indescribable,” Graceann said. “She’s my reason in everything that I do, and she’s definitely the reason why I wanted to keep playing and found the strength to do that. I feel for anybody who is processing grief at any stage of their life, and especially when you’re away from home.”

Michelle was a long-time Queensbury Middle School English teacher and department head, as well as a girls basketball coach. The school honors her with the Michelle Bennett Memorial girls basketball tournament. She also coached at Lake George and Hadley-Luzerne.

Graceann says, “I’m so grateful for the support that the Adirondack community showed me while I was playing, and how they continue to keep her legacy alive at Queensbury with the memorial tournament and her scholarship.”

“It’s really hard,” she said of dealing with the loss of her mother at a young age. “I’m just grateful to be healthy and alive and have a chance to play. She loved basketball so much and I got to share that with her for so many years. She’s definitely my reason whenever I play.”

In October, Graceann lost another important figure in her life. Georgetown’s head coach Tasha Butts died from breast cancer at the age of 41, just two weeks before the Hoyas’ first game.

“In the months that we were working with her preparing for this season, she inspired all of us and me personally so much,” Graceann said. “She became another reason for me. She’s someone who had so much life, just like my mom. When you think of them, it’s easy to feel motivated and to go and work as hard as you can because you know that they did that in every opportunity that they had.”

Despite all of this adversity, Bennett, a team captain, has averaged 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists, all career highs, through 28 games. More importantly, the Hoyas’ current 19-10 record means they will finish with their first winning season in Bennett’s five-year career. That’s saying something, especially since Bennett, a perennial starter, suffered through freshman and sophomore 5-25 and 2-15 seasons respectively.

Basketball talent scouts have been noticing Bennett’s success on the court.

Georgetown Head Coach Darnell Haney said, “I’m getting calls from agents all over the world that want to see if they can represent Graceann Bennett…to play professional basketball. She has an opportunity to do that, and then she also has an opportunity to do things off the floor because of how special of a person she is…

“She can play in some of the top leagues overseas. I think right now her level is France, Spain, those leagues over there, because she would be a problem [for opponents] over there with her inside presence.”

Bennett says of pro ball, “That’s always been a dream of mine,” but added, “I’m focused right now on having a really great final lap of my college career and winning games with my team.”

Haney said, “Graceann Bennett is the anchor on this team. She keeps us grounded. She rebounds. She runs. She finishes inside. She leads.

“If there’s an issue, I call Graceann and Graceann huddles the team. And they usually come out a better team than when I told her to huddle.”
The 6’3” forward has added an outside shooting dimension to her game, going 6-13 beyond the arc this season.

“She’s upped her threat at being a three-point shooter,” Haney said. “Her being able to hit threes has helped us tremendously. She’s hit some big key three -point shots. She doesn’t have a lot of attempts, but the times that she’s made them have been key. A lot of them have been either game clinchers, daggers or game winners.”

Bennett wasn’t certain to suit up for the Hoyas this season. She graduated last spring with a double major in marketing and management and considered transferring to play as a graduate student elsewhere.

“I ultimately chose to stay because of how much I love this school and my teammates,” she said. “But I was definitely considering going into the transfer portal just because I had fulfilled my four years here and there was a lot of uncertainty about our coaching staff,” which experienced a “total turnover” from the previous spring.

“I realized I’m going to either go in the portal and play under a totally new staff, or I’m going to stay at this school that I know and love with my teammates that I know and love and play under a totally new staff and have a chance to win here and go to a postseason here,” she said.

“It was clear to me that that’s what I wanted to do. It felt like an opportunity to see my career at Georgetown come to fruition in a winning way, because we had struggled to win games in the conference in previous years.”

Bennett grew up in a sports family. Her father Jeff played football at Syracuse and Holy Cross while her mother Michelle played basketball at Keene State.

“It was the guidance of my parents, who were both college athletes, telling me what kind of work it took to become really good at something that inspired me to put that work and effort in and get my skills ready to play at the next level. I’m really fortunate and lucky that in my house it wasn’t about getting the scholarship, but just seeing how good you could get and what would happen when you pour it into something you were passionate about.”

She started playing basketball seriously around the age of 10, joining a travel team based out of Hudson Falls. “I think my height and physicality as an athlete drew me to basketball,” she said.

Bennett became Lake George’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She also holds the school record for most points, rebounds and blocks in a game as well as most double-doubles in a season.

She was a two-time Adirondack League MVP and First Team All-State honoree.

Bennett was also a starter and captain on Lake George’s volleyball team and was the Adirondack League MVP.

But a lot of her most positive memories of growing up in Lake George came outside the gym. “I think my favorite thing was just being outside. I loved it. I grew up being really connected to nature and being outside. And playing a lot of basketball outside at Usher’s Park and outside our high school.”

She described Lake George as “a community where I felt supported and everybody was tight-knit. During basketball season we had ride-or-die fans and people who really had our backs, so it was a ton of fun to play in a small town.”

At Georgetown as a grad student, Bennett is getting a degree in sports industry management. She has been named to the Big East All-Academic team three times. Last season, she won the Big East Sportsmanship Award.

After school she sees herself working at the intersection between education and sports, either coaching, as a professor, or being an athletic director for student athlete development, among other options.

The Hoyas finish the regular season this Saturday, March 2. Then comes the Big East tournament March 8-11 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The teams that qualify for March Madness are announced on March 17, known as Selection Sunday.

Bennett hopes that the example she sets playing college sports inspires kids from the region she grew up in to continue to pursue their athletic dreams.

“The Adirondack area is small and there may not be a lot of people, but it has everything you need to go play sports in college,” she said. “I want to encourage all of the kids who are wanting to take sports seriously to just work as hard as they can and just know that if they want it, they can do it, and it’s a really life changing experience.”

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