Siena College Athletics
HARRISONBURG — While discussing his recruiting strategy last month, Sean O’Regan laid out his philosophy toward building his team.
“I’m a believer in take the best available player and let’s figure it out,” the James Madison women’s basketball coach said. “I’m not turning away talent. If you can find talent, take it and I’ll figure out what to do with it.”
The flow of talent to JMU continued last month as Jackie Benitez, Siena’s leading scorer last season, confirmed Friday in a phone interview she will transfer to JMU. The decision was first reported on Twitter on June 30.
O’Regan could not comment directly on Benitez because the transfer paperwork has not been finalized.
More than 60 schools reached out to Benitez after she announced her intentions to transfer in March, narrowing her list down to eight schools by early April. Among those on the shortlist were Rutgers and St. John’s, two teams who will visit the Convocation Center this season, and Virginia Tech, coached by former JMU women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks.
However, JMU won out because of the family atmosphere that Benitez said O’Regan stressed during the recruiting process.
“The fact that they care about family and he cares about all of his players,” said Benitez, who will have two years of eligibility left after redshirting the 2017-18 season. “You can tell that he’s very passionate about his players and how they’ll succeed in the future.”
Offense comes naturally to Benitez, who averaged 10.7 points as a freshman in 2015-16 before increasing her average to 16.6 points last season. She shot 33.7 percent from the field during her two seasons at Siena, including 30.4 percent from behind the arc.
She said she has been focusing on becoming a better all-around player since the season ended, but conceded her shot is still the strongest aspect of her repertoire.
“Lately I’ve been working on different things to expand my game,” Benitez said. “But my shot is most definitely the strength of my game.”
Although her offense steals the spotlight, Benitez has found a groove on defense as well. The Tobyhanna, Pa., native has discovered how to use her long 5-foot-10 frame to her advantage, racking up 143 steals with the Saints, including 88 last season when she was named the 2017 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s easy for me to get my hand on the ball and deflect the ball, which causes steals for all of my teammates, and even helps me get steals,” Benitez said. “When I was in high school, I wasn’t as confident with defense, but now that I’m more confident in my defense, I don’t think about it anymore, I just play defense.”
The biggest challenge Benitez faces next season is having to sit in sweatpants at the end of the Dukes bench. NCAA rules require Benitez must take a redshirt year next season, meaning she will not be playing competitive basketball games for the first time since the second grade.
She said her goal for next season is to try to make an impact on the court by practicing hard and pushing the rest of her new teammates.
“It’s going to be hard given that I haven’t sat a season ever,” said Benitez, who becomes the seventh member of the Class of 2020 on JMU’s roster next season. “Being in practice with the girls, and Coach O treating me as if I would still be going to be on the court every practice, it’s going to make me mentally tougher next season.
“My job for the season I’m going to be sitting out is to practice hard, get better and help my teammates who are going to be on the court [get better].”