When the Keene State women’s basketball team wrapped up its season with a 59-43 win over Norwich University on March 14, it put a bow on a successful year that saw the Owls earn a spot in the Little East Conference championship game.
But that last game was a little more than just a win.
Actually, a lot more than that.
A week before that final two-game series of the season, Keene State head coach Keith Boucher told his team that beloved assistant coach Rob Bennett had fallen ill. Immediately, the team knew what it had to do.
“We had just lost [in the LEC championship] and we came into Monday at practice really down,” said senior Jordyn Burke, who spent all four of her years at Keene State with Bennett as her assistant coach. “Then Coach [Boucher] told us the news about Bennett and it was almost like everybody put everything they had to the side for a second and focused on Bennett for that one week. We had the most intense practices that we’ve had in a really long time.”
So, Boucher approached the Norwich head coach that week about honoring Bennett at the March 14 game, and “he was all for it,” Boucher said.
And following the win, the team gathered at mid-court, donning “Bennett Strong” T-shirts, showing their appreciation for the coach that has evidently meant so much to the program throughout his nine years as assistant coach.
“That was the most enjoyable part of the day. Win or lose, [the game] was kind of a small factor in relation with what we were trying to do that day,” Boucher said. “I know there are a lot of alums that have reached out and our current players feel very fortunate that Rob Bennett is part of our program.
“Just to honor that relationship and tell him in a small way how much he means to our program, means to Keene State College and the young women that he’s helped grow, was our main focus,” Boucher added.
Plus, on the opposing sideline during that March 14 game, was Rob Bennett’s niece, Riley Bennett, a senior on the Norwich women’s basketball team.
Riley Bennett said he was a big reason why she got into basketball. As a matter of fact, her basketball coach growing up was also Rob Bennett’s basketball coach back in the day.
So, it just seemed right that Riley Bennett was part of the ceremony honoring her uncle.
“I’m just so thankful to have been a part of it and that the Keene community included me in that,” Riley Bennett said. “I know that he was watching, and it just means more to him than any words can put into place.
“It was just really cool to see the impact that he has on all the girls there,” she added. “It was something really special to put a smile on his face that he really needs and just remind him that he’s impacted a lot of people and a lot of people are backing him right now.”
During normal seasons, Rob Bennett would regularly commute upwards of an hour and a half to the team’s games and practices. This year, with COVID protocols in place, he could not be part of the team in-person since he would have had to travel so much, so he took more of a recruiting role.
But he was still constantly checking in on the team, Boucher said.
“Just his dedication and his commitment has been amazing,” Boucher said.
Rob Bennett’s impact goes deeper than on-the-court exercises, too. He has also become somewhat of a mentor to the young women that go through the program, both on and off the court.
“Bennett isn’t afraid to tell you what you need to hear and then push you towards your goals,” Burke said. “He just shows up every day and wants to see us get better. He’s just one of those people.”
“He’s been responsible for a lot of the young student-athletes that have come through the program in the last nine years,” Boucher said. “and developing them into the person and the student and the player that they became.”
A lot of Rob Bennett’s impact comes from his personality. Boucher said Rob Bennett’s sense of humor was something that the entire team missed this season.
And Burke told a story from her freshman year when the team visited Tennessee for two games, and, after nearly 22 consecutive hours of traveling, it was Rob Bennett that found a way to make everyone laugh over a game of cards.
“It was one of the funniest and fun times that I had and I’ll never forget it because Bennett was right in there with us playing cards and having a great time,” Burke said. “He was just making us all smile.”
It’s a contagious personality trait that Rob Bennett brings to the table each and every time he’s with the team.
“When Coach Bennett is missing from a room, you can tell,” Burke said. “And when he walks in, everybody lights up. And that’s one of the things that I love about Bennett.”