MOUNT VERNON — Justine Benson remembers how warmly her older teammates accepted her in her freshman year.
In her own senior season, the La Conner standout wanted to set an equally positive example for her teammates. She did so — and they all claimed a piece of the program’s history as their own in a historic season.
Benson became La Conner’s all-time leading scorer and Skagit County’s fourth-leading scorer among girls, and helped boost a talented Braves team to a second-place finish at the state Class 2B tournament, the highest-ever finish for the program.
For that, Benson has been selected as the Skagit Valley Herald Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year.
The guard was a dangerous scorer for the Braves, both throughout her career and in her senior season as the Braves rolled to the state title game. Benson averaged 16.6 points per game, the highest average in the county among girls. That total included a team-high 18 points against Liberty (Spangle) in the state title game and a team-high 19 points in a hard-fought game against Columbia (Burbank) earlier in the postseason.
Benson scored 1,580 points in her career, which jolted her into fifth place among scorers in county history. She became La Conner’s all-time leading scorer this season, making her way past Alethia Edwards, who scored 1,497 points from 1992-96.
La Conner coach Scott Novak said that along with fellow senior Morgan Herrera, Benson was a quiet leader for the Braves, who had a number of young players make contributions this season. She’s also been remarkably consistent, he added, even as the Braves lost talented players to graduation and added other young players through the years.
“Each year, she got better but the team got better also. It’s amazing she was able to sustain that,” he said. “She’s done that for four years, she’s been very consistent.”
Benson said the team was aware this particular year could be special. Last year’s squad reached the state semifinals before running into a Tri-Cities Prep team that had as one of its main weapons one of the most highly recruited players in the country.
This year’s La Conner team got off to an impressive start, winning 20 of its first 22 games and losing only to Wahkiakum — known to be one of the top teams in the state — and a 1A power in King’s that went on to qualify for state in its classification.
“We knew we could go farther. The seniors knew what we wanted to do. We knew how to get there,” she said.
Benson’s sister, Joanie, who is also a multisport star, agreed.
“People on this team were more motivated than any other team I’d been on,” she said.
Justine said the credit for the Braves’ success is the unity everyone strove for.
“We had that emotional piece right. We really bonded,” she said. “There was more off-the-court interaction. That had never really happened before. (When the games started) we’d already visualized what we had to do and just had to execute.”
Justine said one highlight was a postseason win against Wahkiakum in the state semifinals, a team that beat the Braves early in the regular season.
“Beating Wahkiakum was monumental,” she said. “It was a powerful experience, and it showed we deserved to be in that championship game.”