Benson and Gustafson sign with Upper IowaTwo local players will bring a bit of Wisconsin flare to the basketball courts of Iowa next year.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
Two local players will bring a bit of Wisconsin flare to the basketball courts of Iowa next year.
Sarah Benson, a senior at Northwood School in Minong, and Emily Gustafson, a senior at South Shore in Port Wing, both signed national letters of intent Nov. 14 to play basketball for Upper Iowa University (Fayette, Iowa).
Upper Iowa, an NCAA Division II school, is a member of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Only one of the 13 players on Upper Iowa’s roster this season is from Wisconsin.
“I first received a letter from them last season in the regular season,” said Benson, a 6-foot guard. “I became interested in them through that, and then I was playing AAU basketball over the summer and they came and watched me multiple times.”
Benson visited the campus about a month and a half ago and met with the coaches and players.
“I just really fell in love with the school and the program,” Benson said. “I loved the campus and the coaches, and of course the players were really nice. And they have a good biology program, which is what I want to major in.”
Benson said the small town feel of Fayette appealed to her, and she looked forward to playing Division II basketball.
Benson also received interest from St. Catherine University in St. Paul and Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa — both NCAA Division III schools.
“She’s a special player,” said Jason Schultz, head coach of Northwood girls basketball team. “There’s not a lot of people her height that can handle the ball the way she does, so she’s got a really special skill set.”
Schultz also praised Gustafson. She’s been a headache for the Evergreens while playing for South Shore, but Schultz knew Gustafson first from the days when her family lived in Minong.
“It’s going to be a bit of a reunion from when they (Benson and Gustafson) played together as fifth-graders,” Schultz said.
Benson remembers playing with Gustafson in elementary school, but in high school the former teammates have only been rivals.
“We talked about it . . . how crazy would it be if we played together,” Benson said. “And then it turned out that we both committed like within two weeks of each other.”
Benson is believed to be the first Northwood girl to sign a national letter of intent to play for a Division II school or higher. Gustafson follows in the footsteps of Jolene Anderson, who signed with the University of Wisconsin and played for the Badgers from 2004-2008.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a girl here sign any kind of scholarship athletically, so it’s a big deal,” Schultz said.
Benson missed most of her sophomore basketball season with a torn ACL.
She returned to the court as a junior and proved an amazingly versatile player for the Evergreens. Benson averaged 10.3 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game in her junior season. She also put up 5.2 assists, 3.3 steals and 3.3 blocks per game.
“I’ve just always played like that,” Benson said. “I know a bunch of people focus on scoring, but I feel basketball is an all-around game, and defense is very important. My coach likes to pick on me because I don’t like to shoot very much, but I’m fine with other people scoring as long as it happens.”
Schultz said he sometimes wishes Benson would be “more offensively selfish,” but in every other aspect of the game she is unparalleled.
“She plays defense, rebounds, blocks shots, gets the steals, passes well — she doesn’t have a lot of flaws in her game,” Schultz said.
Gustafson averaged a double-double for the Cardinals last season as a junior. The 6-foot-2 forward scored 15.5 points per game and led the state in rebounding with 14 per game.
She is expected to surpass the 1,000 marker in both career points and rebounds this season. Gustafson currently has 990 rebounds and 979 points.
For the past two years, Gustafson has played AAU basketball for the Team Wisconsin program out of Menomonie.
Both Gustafson and Benson are honor roll students.
Benson said she looks forward to playing with Gustafson again next year. Until then, the two seniors will lead their rival teams in their quests for a state tournament berth.
South Shore’s last state appearance was in 2004, Anderson’s senior year. The Evergreens advanced to state for the first time in 2010, when Benson was a freshman.
The Evergreens and Cardinals faced off in the regional finals last season. Northwood won the match-up 53-47 and eventually advanced to the sectional finals.
“To me, when we’ve matched up with them it’s always been kind of weird because those girls (Emily and Megan Gustafson) if they would have stayed here five years ago or six years ago, they would have been playing with us,” Schultz said.
The two teams seem likely meet again in the playoffs this season. Both are in the same half bracket, and only one team from each half bracket can advance to the sectional finals.
During the regular season, the Cardinals are scheduled to travel to Minong on Jan. 15 for a non-conference game with the Evergreens. The game will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Northwood School.