Stories like this usually begin with, once upon a time…
Once upon a time a coach stumbles on a talent so unrefined he can’t even believe he wants her on his team. The girl he discovers is athletic — she ran track in middle school — but she is so unschooled in the game of basketball it would seem easier to teach Verne Troyer how to dunk than to make her into a basketball player.
“I mean, there was raw talent there,” said Darnell Dozier, varsity head coach at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach. “She could just jump out the gym and block shots with ease. But she couldn’t dribble, and she couldn’t shoot. I thought, ‘My God. My grandmother could play better.’”
College of William and Mary junior forward Tiffany Benson got her start on the court from the other side of the bench.
“I started off as a cheerleader,” Benson said. “Some of my teammates know. I really don’t talk about it. I just mention it under my breath like, ‘Yeah I was a cheerleader.’”
Dozier’s son saw Benson play in a pickup game, and his scouting report led Dozier to watch one of Benson’s middle school games. The coach was intrigued and paid Benson, who had only started playing basketball in the seventh grade, a home visit.
“The next day he comes to my house, comes to my mom and was like, ‘I can get your daughter in the newspaper’,” Benson said.
Dozier’s flattery did not leave Benson’s living room.
“The first day of practice for high school basketball, he said, ‘If you think about shooting that ball, I will put your butt right there on that bench,’” Benson said.
The coach had his reasons.
“I said, the only thing I need you to do is block shots,” Dozier said. “Well when you go after a kid and have them block shots for a while, they ask the question, ‘Why can’t I shoot?’ I said, ‘Don’t you ever shoot.’
“I remember one night she just threw it over the backboard and I was like, ‘Hey, come on. That’s a little embarrassing for me.’”
Dozier was as patient as Benson was raw, and soon they formed a relationship that was less coach-player and more father-daughter.
“Her mom worked all the time, so she never had a chance to go a lot of places,” Dozier said. “So when I’d go to the games to scout other teams, I’d always take Tiffany.”
Benson’s work ethic and capacity for learning soon made her one of the premier talents in the Virginia Beach area. She was twice named Beach District Defensive Player of the Year and was honored as a first-team All-Tidewater selection as a senior, averaging 8.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game.
Benson also led Princess Anne to a state title in 2005, prompting Dozier to call her “the best leader I had in fifteen years.”
“She was just a pure leader. She’d say, ‘I can’t score. But you girls can score — and you best score. I can play defense and get rebounds, but you all need to score.’”
The close relationship between the coach and his now premier player continued after the end of basketball season. Dozier helped Benson choose a school, telling her that if she wanted a strong foundation for a career outside from basketball she should strongly consider the College.
Benson wasn’t sold at first as she also considered attending Virginia Commonwealth University and Campbell University.
“I wanted to get out, to get away from Virginia Beach because I’ve been here all my life… so this was the last place I wanted to go until I came here on my recruiting visit.”
Benson meshed well with girls on the basketball team and fell in love with the staff that had been recruiting her since they first saw her on the AAU circuit.
“We watched a lot of her games,” Tribe Head Coach Debbie Taylor said. “We really liked her. We went to almost every game she played that summer, and then we started going to her high school games.”
Benson enrolled at the College in the fall of 2006, but the separation from her family [as it does for many freshmen] took its toll.
“She called me, saying, ‘I’m coming home, come and get me,’” Dozier said. “‘Here’s what I said, and I quote: ‘I’m not coming to get you. Don’t call me until you’re ready to stay there, and I will not come and get you because you’re going to stay there for four years. And if it takes five, you’re going to stay there for five.’
“She didn’t call me for about a month, so one day I called her. I said, ‘You all right?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, things have gotten a little bit better, but it’s still hard.’ I said, ‘You can do it. If I did not think you could do it, I would not have sent you there.’”
Fortunately for the Tribe, Benson stayed. She earned CAA All-Rookie team honors as a freshman and set a school record for blocked shots with 67 in a season. Benson made the CAA All-Defensive team in her sophomore season, recording 58 blocks and averaging 8.3 points per game.
This past season, Benson found herself back in a leadership role, but on top of leading the defense, she was forced to head the Tribe’s offense as well. Thanks to assistant coach Meg Barber and countless hours in the gym, the girl who shot the ball in the other team’s basket during her first middle school basketball practice led the Tribe with 12 points per game this season.
“All of the sudden, I’m a leader now. It’s a big change for me,” Benson said. “I can’t even believe it, me being a leading scorer … It’s a shock to me because I’d never thought I’d even be in the position to have a basketball scholarship.”
Benson recorded 11.5 rebounds per game this past season, tying her for seventh in the country. She also averaged 2.7 blocks, earning her the CAA Defensive Player of the Year award — only the second Tribe player to win that honor (Kyle DeHaven did it in 2005).
And the coach? The one who discovered a player so raw, yet so talented, and helped mold her into a college basketball player?
“I’m just so proud of her. There isn’t anyone in this world, other than my own kids, that I’m proud of even more,” Dozier said. “If you were to come to me on the street and say, ‘who’s the kid you’re most proud of that you ever coached?’ It’d be Tiffany Benson.”