By Dana Becker
Nicole Benson felt a greater power driving her to Iowa Central even before she really knew anything about the school or women's basketball program.
Benson was inducted into the Triton Athletic Hall of Fame as part of the 2015 class following her standout career.
And she points to one person in particular for all of it coming together.
"I decided on Iowa Central because of Tom Beneke," Benson said. "I was in my senior year of high school at Omaha Central High School and it was during the holiday tournaments when we were first introduced. I was with some teammates and they went up to our coach, Dave Felici, to ask for something. I saw Beneke sitting next to him and he looked at me. I looked at him and had a feeling he was a college coach - even though he had regular clothes on.
"I knew that God was up to something. I can't explain it any other way, I just knew. Later on, Felici asked me to come into the hallway and introduced me to Beneke and I was offered a scholarship to play. He told me that he thought I could help turn the program around at Iowa Central and I was immediately on board. I was hooked by the fact that I could help build something. That was amazing to me. I felt as if I actually mattered."
The idea of becoming a student-athlete at the collegiate level was a little on the intimidating side Benson admits, but she found the guidance needed in Beneke and others at the school.
"As a student, I was a first-generation college student," she said. "There was so much I did not know about college. Going to college was scary, but I was functionally scared if that makes any sense. I was very excited to be a traditional college student, though. But I had a lot to learn.
"At times it felt as if I had a huge weight on me to succeed because I was the first. I met some awesome instructors along the way who helped me realize that Anthropology and Psychology were in my heart. As a basketball player, I had to learn how to play better and Beneke helped me tremendously.
"My father passed away when I was 16 years old and Beneke was a man I could look up to and trusted. He pushed me past my limits and I knew it was for the better. I shed so many tears because of the fact that my mindset was being challenged for the first time. It was challenging, but I understand the mental transition I was officially starting.
"My teammates were so amazing! We were a real team because we worked together. We won together and lost together; we never pointed fingers at each other. We did have a lot to overcome as players, but we kept at it. Freshman year we were 14-16, sophomore year we were 15-13, if I remember correctly. We helped turn the program around with gradual movement forward, but I could not have been with a better group of ladies! I have so much respect for each one. Genuinely good people! I felt like I belonged and it was a great place for me. I truly appreciate everything I learned there."
Benson earned her degree at Iowa Central before transferring to Texas A&M University for one year. She eventually landed at St. Gregory's University to finish her basketball career.
"My experience at A&M was challenging, but I have forgiven the experience and learned a valuable lesson about coaching. It was definitely a blessing in disguise," she said. "You see, I know that God has a plan for everything and I had to grow to understand my experience there as a player. Once I learned it, I never looked back. God will use all things for my good just like His word says and I am living in that evidence. I am very grateful for the lessons learned there. I would not change a single thing."
As a Triton, Benson scored 1,007 points and recorded 588 rebounds earning second team all-region as a freshman and first team as a sophomore.
"Coach Beneke was a huge influence. I really do owe him so much for all he did for me. He is a good person and was like a father figure for me. He pushed me to be a better player. He is the one who taught me what a real coach is all about. I appreciate that," Benson said. "His family was great and very supportive of him and the team. My teammates were so supportive and inspirational. Coach Mike Brown (Brownie) was filled with inspiration! He would say things that caused us to see things differently and what he said was clear. So awesome! Dr. Bob Paxton was supportive. He would come to the games and cheer us on and be encouraging after the games. The drama teacher, Teresa Jackson, she was an amazing instructor, too. I loved learning how to act from her! Ms. Shirley was one of the cooks in the cafeteria and she would make specialty omelets for us on the weekends for breakfast. She was sweet and paid attention to us. We knew we mattered to her and I hope she knew she mattered to us. Coach Monte Gardner was someone I saw that had a heart for the players. I think he was a good person. Coach Sandquist was a good person as well. He really cared about coaching baseball and it was very easy to see. He was always smiling when I saw him. It would make me smile, too.
"The environment at Iowa Central was a safe place for me."
Benson is now giving back to her community as a middle school teacher in Omaha and with her own coaching business.
"I teach Social Studies and Leadership Skills," she said. "Besides my Associate in Arts and Science from Iowa Central, I have a Bachelor of Science in Social Science, a Master of Art in Teaching, and a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Leadership. I am currently working on my certification for Educational Leadership and I started my individualized coaching business called Basic Adrenaline, LLC this summer.
"My hobbies include reading, drawing, and cooking. In October of 2015, Dr. Kinney called me and informed me that I was nominated to be inducted into the Iowa Central Athletic Hall of Fame. I am still shocked by that acknowledgment almost five years later. It was definitely a humbling experience."