In what could be described as a classic underdog story, Benson girls basketball rose over rivals Southridge in an inspiring state final, winning their first championship. “Everyone was hyped,” said star point guard Bria Dixson (11). And they had good reason. In previous years, Benson performed well, but had always fallen short of a title. Southridge on the other hand, had a long history of success, winning two years in a row prior. Furthering doubt, said Benson’s coach Eric Knox, “We had a lot of preseason injuries that prohibited us from having full practices during the preseason so it took a while to get in shape and hit our stride.” But despite doubt, the team persisted. “We believed we would win this year, and the more people that didn’t believe in us the more fueled we were,” said Dixson.
Knox also spoke about the challenges of being a school doubted because of their race and class ideology. “I made it not about basketball and that was the key,” said Knox. “We as a program wanted to tell a story and the season [was] the storybook. And the story was simple—how does the smallest and most diverse school and the only free and reduced lunch school win a state title at the highest classification of 6A Oregon girls basketball? How does that happen with minimal resources?” said Knox. 78% of Benson kids are on free and reduced lunch—one of the highest percentages in the district—and most of the players trying out can’t afford the minimal participation fee.
Knox seemed to have a calculated plan, which he can point to as the reason behind his team’s success. Instead of focusing on the resources they didn’t have, the team kept to a strict philosophy of four things: “KEEPIN’ IT REAL,” “KEEPIN’ IT G (GANGSTA),” “HANDLING YOUR HATERS,” and finally, “THE GRIND.” “We stayed true to our experience and never deviated from it. When we didn’t have ‘stuff,’ we had each other….we worked from abundance, not from a deficit. We never tripped on what we didn’t have, we locked into what we had,” said Knox. He told the girls to celebrate their differences and use them to their advantage. “Benson girls basketball is primarily comprised of black and brown girls—this cultural identity was important for our narrative and story. We don’t look nor act like anyone else. We had our own style, swag, and flavor, and we were unapologetic about it. We knew our black and brown skin represented hope for a lot of young black and brown girls that have never seen a team that looks like them play at such an elite level. Our girls knew all season that they were the new kids on the block and that there were plenty of people not wanting us to succeed because we didn’t look like your typical state contending team. I stressed to my girls to not succumb to the haters’ wishes by exchanging hate with hate, but rather replace hate with love.”
Knox also made sure the ladies on his team prepared for what was to come. “There are three levels to grind,” he explained. The first level is grinding for stuff, which Knox refers to as “material and hollow.” The second level is making short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. The third level is “grinding to grind,” which is what the program understood. “Grinding to grind isn’t grinding for material things, nor is it a temporary inconvenience to gain something long term. Grinding to grind is just loving the process, getting up every day and working on your craft as an athlete and a team because growth is the natural byproduct of enjoying what you love to do,” said Knox. According to him, that’s where the team’s mindset was going into the season.
Leading up to the big match, the Benson girls trained hard, focusing on discipline in games and in practice. In the preseason, they had actually lost a few games to top teams in the country, including Southridge. “There were no residual effects after the loss to Southridge at the PIL [Portland Interscholastic League] Xmas Tournament other than it convinced us that if we saw them again, and if we clean up a few possessions, we figured we could beat them,” said Knox. After those games, the Techsters knew they wanted a victory even more. “The season looked good from the beginning, but when we went down to Arizona we played top ten nationally ranked teams and we lost three out of four games,” said Dixson. The night we got back a flip switched and we all knew we needed to grind way harder.” Benson went into the regular league season with a mission and an intention to execute their plan. Almost all their games against PIL teams were a blowout; even the league final against Grant ended in a lopsided 60-30 Benson victory. “For as long as I’ve been at Benson we’ve always played the role of ‘hunter,’ trying to take down the big dog. This year we played the role of the ‘hunted’ because we were either on top or close to the top,” said Knox.
Benson went into the OSAA (Oregon School Activities Association) tournament as favorites from PIL, but no one expected the outcome that happened. All Benson knew was that they wanted to face off with Southridge one more time. In the first and second round games, they breezed past their opponents, scoring almost double their opposition in both matches. During quarterfinals, the score got a little bit closer: a 53-38 win over Jesuit. In the semifinals, they beat Sheldon in an exciting 58-52 match. After Benson’s impressive start to their playoff run, people to realized they really had a shot at clinching the championship.
In the beginning of the game, the atmosphere was electric. University of Portland Chiles Stadium was packed with eager fans and students. Benson jumped into an early lead, only exciting the school’s supporters even more. This seemed to catch Southridge off guard —they were used to being in control in the matchup. Benson used that as an advantage, gaining a greater and greater lead as the game went on. By the time there was five minutes to go, it was clear that they had won it all, but composure was key to show good sportsmanship. “I looked up at the clock and and realized we did it. When the buzzer sounded, I was crying and so happy because I played that game for my grandma and I looked up and knew she was there,” said Dixson. The Benson students attempted to rush the court, but were stopped by security. Many stood behind the court lines to watch Benson claim their title and cut the net.
“To be honest, the evening of the celebration I jumped in my car and cried,” said Knox. “I had known these special girls that are seniors now since they were in the seventh grade. I went to every one of their eighth [grade] graduations, I went to every one of their games for two years before they even got to [high school] and now after the state championship game, it was over and our lives in some ways would go different directions. So there was a great deal of sadness for me when I reflected in my car what these girls meant to me.” When asked what the plan was for next year, Coach Knox said: “To tell a brand new story! I don’t know what the story will be but stay tuned!”