|The bond between Benjamin and Hill fuels the Mount St. Joseph program through good times and not so good.
By Andrew Lovell
It's been a tough season for the Mount St. Joseph women's basketball team.
Tough is actually understating it. The Lions have just one win in 13 games, a season after finishing with the program's best record in 12 years and qualifying for the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament. A roster that began the season with a healthy number of 18 players has been trimmed to just nine, due to a litany of injuries and other unforeseen circumstances.
"You talk about facing adversity," Benjamin said. "We are facing it. But every day, we compete."
Few coaches -- and by extension, college basketball programs -- are better equipped to face adversity head-on than Mount St. Joseph.
It's been a little over two years since Lauren Hill sank an inspirational layup in a game that drew 10,000-plus spectators, the most public moment in a moving battle with terminal brain cancer that impacted millions of people around the world. Hill's story was covered by local and national media outlets, and her death in April 2015 was mourned by all touched by her fight.
A day hasn't passed in the subsequent 21 months in which Benjamin hasn't thought of Hill. Reminders of Hill's inspiring battle are everywhere -- the mementos, like wrist bands or pictures, that he has in his home; the regular visits with Hill's parents; and, of course, Mount St. Joseph's gym.
"It gives me chills right now just thinking back about the impact we made," Benjamin said. "The impact of a layup."
Benjamin first met Hill in the fall of 2013 when he helped recruit her as an assistant coach for Mount St. Joseph. Hill committed to the Lions on Oct. 1, her 18th birthday, and just 49 days before she was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare and devastating tumor of the brainstem.
The news blindsided Benjamin, who wanted to do something to show Hill the Mount St. Joseph community was still behind her. Through the university's admissions office, the Lions were able to gift a blanket, signed by all of the basketball team's players, to Hill at one of their home games that December. Benjamin, affectionately known as "Coach Bear," was the last one to approach Hill that night. She eschewed a hand shake for a bear hug.
A few weeks later, Benjamin attended a fundraiser being held in Hill's honor. Again, he was on the receiving end of a Hill hug. He knew it was the beginning of a special bond.
"When I say to people that God has a plan, I really mean that," Benjamin said. "He had a plan for me to be in Lauren's life as much as He had a plan for Lauren to be in my life. We needed each other."
When the Lions' head coaching job opened up with the departure of Ashley Bland after the 2013-14 season, a prolonged search for a replacement left Benjamin on uncertain footing. He was eventually offered the job on an interim basis, something that might dissuade other coaches in his position. Not Benjamin -- he accepted the job without a second thought.
"I got my shot and that was all I needed," Benjamin said. "I knew I'd be there for her. That was big for me."
Together, Benjamin and Hill would find strength in each other. Benjamin after the sudden and unexpected death of his older brother, and Hill as she pushed to raise awareness for DIPG and other cancers despite the chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments that drained her.
Benjamin said he will always remember Hill as a bright and funny personality, with a quick wit to match his own. More than that, Benjamin will never forget how Hill always wore a smile, despite the pain she was feeling.
"This young lady taught me a lot about waking up every day and really seizing the moment," Benjamin said. "God gives you an opportunity to make an impact with others."
"She would have been one heck of a coach," Benjamin added.
A handful of players on Mount St. Joseph's roster this season knew Hill directly, including forward Emily Townsend, who lived with Hill on campus. Benjamin said he shoulders a responsibility to carry on Hill's message not only in the Mount St. Joseph program, but in the medical world as well.
"Lauren said, 'If we get close to it, Coach, how many other cancers are we going to solve?'" Benjamin said. "That keeps resonating in my mind. How can we keep this legacy going? How do we keep it going with a game, or how do we keep it going throughout the country? Because there's other kids suffering from cancers and DIPG. We just need to keep it going."
Hill's No. 22 jersey has not been worn by any Mount St. Joseph players in a game since her death. Last season, the jersey was rotated in practices among players exhibiting passion and perseverance that reflected Hill's. The university has not retired No. 22, but Benjamin is hopeful that will happen in the near future.
Hill's legacy continues to live on in other ways. Mount St. Joseph and Hiram played in the second annual Lauren Hill Tipoff Classic earlier this season at Xavier University's Cintas Center, the same site and opponent from Hill's memorable first collegiate game. The Forever 22 Scholarship Fund was recently established by the university, and it's Benjamin's hope that one day it will offer up to 22 scholarships per year to students.
Benjamin strives to make an impact every day, and that's most applicable to coaching. Life will inevitably bring adversity, pain and loss, but it's choosing to stay positive and focused that gets us through it. Hill taught Benjamin that, and it's a lesson that won't soon be forgotten.
"It's amazing," Benjamin said. "You try to guide your life, but you really don't have a say in it as much as you think."
For more information on Lauren Hill's story, or to donate, visit http://www.thecurestartsnow.org/.