By Josh Strope, The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register for the West Virginia Sports Writers Association
WHEELING, W.Va. –Whether it’s on a softball diamond or a basketball court, Riley Bennington doesn’t allow an opposing team much offense.
While Bennington has made her name in the softball circle–she’s taking her talents to West Liberty University–she doesn’t get those same headlines on the hardwood.
But that doesn’t bother her one bit. She is OK with her teammates getting all the glory. She just wants to win. And win she did, playing a big part in the Maroon Knights’ run to the Class A state championship with her lockdown defense of two of the tournament’s best.
That kind of unselfish attitude is a big reason Bennington has been selected by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association as the fourth winner of the Doug Huff Award, given to a senior in a team sport whose value is not easily quantified by statistics and standard individual awards.
Bennington will be honored May 6 at the 72nd annual Victory Awards Dinner at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston.
“This is a great award and makes me feel that all the hard work I’ve put in has really paid off,” Bennington said. “But I couldn’t have done it without the help of my team.”
For Bennington, she has been a four-year starter with the Maroon Knight’s basketball team. She was the team’s second leading scorer as a freshman and played a big offensive role in her sophomore season.
At the start of her junior year, two big offensive threats joined the team in then-freshmen Kaylee Reinbeau and Eden Gainer. Along with standout Taylor Duplaga, there might not have been enough basketballs to go around.
So Bennington went to Maroon Knights’ head coach Penn Kurtz with a request.
“She said, those guys can score, let me concentrate on defense and rebounding,” Kurtz recalled. “She was sacrificing her personal accomplishments for the good of the team, and you can’t ask for anything more for a teammate.”
To Bennington, though, it wasn’t a hard choice. For her, it was all about what she could do to make the team better.
And for Kurtz, that was a welcome sign. Wheeling Central has long been known for its defense, and Bennington was his workhorse.
“She could match up with anybody,” Kurtz said. “It doesn’t matter if it was a post player or a guard. She takes so much pride in her defense. She practiced hard every night and you never had to worry about the effort she was going to give during a game.
“She made the other girls better.”
Bennington might have saved her best moments for her last.
During the state tournament, it was Bennington who was called upon to guard two of the state’s best players–Sydney Nestor of Tucker County and Paige Shy of St. Joseph Central.
Both were first team all-staters. Both were top offensive threats for their teams. Both were in for long days against Bennington.
During Wheeling Central’s regular season match-up against then unbeaten Tucker County, Nestor–who averaged 19.5 points a game, was held to 10. Nestor scored 19 against Wheeling Central in the state semi-final match-up, but Bennington did her part in keeping Nestor from taking over the game.
Bennington even flashed her old offensive ways in that contest, scoring a game-high 21 points and going a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc.
The next day, a just as imposing task was taking on the Irish’s Shy in the championship game against the defending champion and top seed.
Bennington held Shy (16.5 ppg) scoreless in the first half and below double figures for the game.
“She was the toughest player I had to defend,” Bennington said of Shy. “I had Eden (Gainer) be her in practice all week because they are so similar. I knew I had to get right up on her because she can shoot and make shots from anywhere. She made some hard shots and it was a challenge.
“I look forward to those kind of challenges. It is my job to stop that player and it keeps you going. I feel like it really helps pick my teammates up. I bring a lot of intensity and they see that. It was a big part of how we played as a team.”
Bennington joins past Doug Huff Award winners Mary Lawman (Winfield, 2017), Bryce Goldsmith (Capital, 2016) and Tavon Horton (Fairmont Senior, 2015).