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Article updated: 11/15/2012 3:08 PM
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Vernon Hills' Bennett-Swanson breaks new ground
 

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Vernon Hills' Bennett-Swanson breaks new ground
  • Vernon Hills senior Meri Bennett-Swanson poses with her parents, Shane Swanson and Susan Bennett, after signing her national letter of intent with DePaul University on Wednesday.

    Vernon Hills senior Meri Bennett-Swanson poses with her parents, Shane Swanson and Susan Bennett, after signing her national letter of intent with DePaul University on Wednesday. Submitted photo

 

Meri Bennett-Swanson might have started a run on DePaul University T-shirts that one day when she decided to buy a bunch for her BFFs.

She might have started another run Wednesday, when the lefty, who can sink running hooks, signed her name on a national letter of intent with DePaul.

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In a dozen seasons of varsity girls basketball at Vernon Hills, the Cougars had never boasted a Division I player until their 6-foot-2 senior made her commitment to the Blue Devils official in front of family, friends, coaches and other staff members in the high school library.

"It's great," a beaming Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said of the historic day for his program. "Division I is something. But DePaul, a perennial top-20 program -- it's fantastic.

"She's worked really hard over several years to put herself in this position," Brettner said of Bennett-Swanson, who verbally committed to DePaul back in March. "It's fantastic for her. It's fantastic for her family. And for the program, for sure, too."

As a smiling Bennett-Swanson signed, wearing a DePaul hoodie and flanked by parents Shane Swanson and Susan Bennett, two of her teammates, juniors Sydney Smith and Lauren Webb, watched and smiled along with her.

Smith was wearing the DePaul T-shirt that her tall teammate bought her.

Who knows? Maybe Smith, a tough, skilled forward who can shoot the 3, will be a collegiate teammate of Bennett-Swanson.

"Oh, I would love it if she came to DePaul," said Bennett-Swanson, who in her first three varsity seasons has established herself as the school's all-time leading scorer (1,039 points) and put herself on the verge of surpassing Lauren Horan as the school's career leader in rebounds. Her 518 boards trail Horan's 564.

Nothing like recruiting a friend with some swag.

"Maybe it's subconscious," Bennett-Swanson said with a laugh. "I bought all the T-shirts at the same time."

A first for Vernon Hills' girls program Wednesday might not be a last. The 5-9 Smith and the 6-foot Webb, a post player who can put the ball on the floor and also shoot from the perimeter, both have Division I potential.

"Those two, they're so great," Bennett-Swanson said. "I can't wait to see what Syd puts together for her signing day. And Lauren, oh my goodness. This whole library will be packed. They won't have any (vacant) tables."

Last season, the Cougars' "Big Three" led their squad to a runner-up finish in the Class 3A state tournament.

Bennett-Swanson was 11 when her dream of someday playing college basketball started materializing. She says her AAU coach Jeff Pagliocca helped her understand that she had the potential to do great things in the sport. She trained five days a week with him. Pagliocca helped her realize that basketball was a thinking person's game, too.

The cerebral part appealed to the A-student. Basketball had become her passion.

"Suddenly, I was like, 'Oh. There's more than just feeder basketball. These (AAU) kids are good. There are other kids that you can play with that will make you better,' " Bennett-Swanson said. "That's when I really started to love, love, love basketball."

Her father fueled the passion, too.

"My dad put this goal in my head when I was in sixth grade," Bennett-Swanson said. "I remember the conversation. He said, 'You could play basketball in college someday.' I was like, 'Really?' My mom was like, 'Shane, don't tell her that. She should be able to do whatever she wants.' "

Mind you, Shane and Susan went to the University of Iowa on music scholarships. Shane played the trumpet. Susan played the flute. Meri learned to play the oboe. At Vernon Hills this year, she was the anchor oboe at districts.

Then there was the recent audition that coincided with her official visit to DePaul in September. She had a favor to ask of Blue Demons coach Doug Bruno.

"I said, 'Normally I would never ask this, but I really need an hour of practice time (with the oboe),' " Bennett-Swanson said. "It was a 10-minute piece. I needed to work out some kinks. I really wanted it to be perfect for my audition. He actually said, 'Meri, come play the oboe for me.' "

So she played the oboe for him in his office.

Oh boy, that oboe sounded sweet,

"I was so nervous," Bennett-Swanson said. "I could have shot 10 free throws, maybe made them all, in front of him and not been as nervous."

No wonder she picked Bruno and his program. The man recognizes a kid's passion to play, whether it be basketball or a musical instrument.

"The coaching staff really is what made me choose DePaul, because there's no one like Doug Bruno out there," Bennett-Swanson said. "I really wanted to play for him, and I'm so fortunate that it was a mutual thing.

"That (official visit) reinforced the decision that I really did want to go there," she added. "It's the place for me."

Sounds just right.

jaguilar@dailyherald.com

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