Clark, Bennett earn TVL All-Star nods
Juniata duo lead girls TVL All-Stars
MIFFLINTOWN–The Juniata girls basketball season ended in the first round of districts, but that does not take away from the success the team had during its 2019-2020 season. The Indians boasted a Top 5 offense and a Top 4 defense in the league, they swept the division champion Greenwood and made the District 6 tourney. When the Tri-Valley League announced its All-Stars, both Olivia Clark and MacKenzie Bennett were named to the second-team.
Clark, playing in her final season for the Indians, put together her finest season donning the red and white. The senior averaged 11.2 points in league play, and thrived in all facets of the game, tallying multiple double-doubles throughout the season.
Juniata coach Mike Smith commented that he expected Clark to be named to the first-team, and provided statistics to back his claim.
” I was surprised when she didn’t get first team this year,” Smith explained. “She was also one of the best defenders we had. (She was) second in the league in blocks (43), behind Alli Walton’s 44, and (second in) rebounds (139) behind Jordan Mallon who had 142, and eighth in steals. (Clark) was ninth in scoring at 11.2 ppg, and seventh at free throw shooting at 66.3 percent, but she was never selfish about shooting.”
Smith offered nothing but praise when talking about Clark, who played to her potential in practices and games, alike.
“Olivia is a true competitor. She brings the same intensity to practice as she does to games and once she is on, she doesn’t miss,” Smith said.
But, that level of commitment and passion was not limited to just on the court activities. Smith recalled a day where Clark went above and beyond to help a new student get acclimated to life at Juniata High School.
“I remember an away game, on the bus (Clark) requested that all the girls make one of her friend’s transition from another school to JHS, a smooth day. She is constantly thinking of ways to help others,” Smith said.
Again, her affinity for helping people was evident on and off the court. Smith mentioned that Clark was always there to offer advice and promote growth among the younger players.
“I can’t say it enough, she is an all around dream to have as player. (She was) never a problem on the court and (was) always open to share intel on what is going on, on the court, in a constructive manner,” Smith said. “She would help with our elementary program and younger kids in the offseason and volunteered to help at halftime of our JV game with the third and fourth grade games.”
In her four years at Juniata, Clark displayed her leadership abilities early and often. She was normally the one on the court calling out plays and hyping up her teammates and Smith cites her ability to move forward as one of the reason the Indians never had more than a two-game losing streak.
“It was quite obvious early on that she was a captain, she led by building up her teammates and offering to help. I was quite fortunate to have this in most of the players; they are a great group to coach,” Smith said. “She never let the team get down and of course after a tough loss they would be down on themselves, but after a tough loss to Susquenita, we came back the following night and beat Greenwood, and that was due to her unwillingness to give up.”
Clark left big shoes to fill which is a daunting task for the younger players, but with his returning group, Smith thinks Clark’s willingness to help her teammates will ultimately be the reason why they will step up in her absence.
“It will be difficult, of course, but we have some motivated younger players that have been chomping at the bit to step into that role,” Smith said. “Olivia was a true threat. She could shoot from outside, mid range, rebound on offense and put the ball back in the hoop. That is rare that someone can do all of that. She also was great on the fast break. They will be tough shoes to fill, but I believe we are going to be very competitive next year.”
A key piece in Juniata’s success this season, and for the next two seasons, lies in the hands of MacKenzie Bennett. The sophomore was named a Tri-Valley League Second-Team All-Star along with Clark. Bennett was the lone underclassmen in a starting five that included four seniors.
As a player, Smith said that Bennett’s style of play resembles a shooting guard, but Bennett was tasked to take on the point guard role. Again, Smith pointed to the statistics to prove exactly why Bennett earned her spot on the TVL second-team.
“She took on the role of point guard this season when she is more fitted at a shooting guard spot, and nailed it,” Smith said. “She was ninth on the assist leader board at 35, 13th in the league at points per game at 9.6, and one of the best defenders I had. She was also 9th in free-throw percentage at 63.9”
Smith said that like Clark, the other coaches came to a quick comclusion when naming Bennett to the second team. Her hard work showed on the court and made an impression on opposing coaches.
“There was no hesitation from the other coaches in the league in selecting Kenz as second team,” Smith said. “Just like Clark, there is no ‘off switch’ during practice. The same level of intensity is demonstrated in practice as she does in games. She is always willing to stick around after practice and work on skills. She is a very talented athlete but also works very hard to improve. Second team is very impressive as a 10th grader.”
Her natural talent and work ethic are what Smith thinks will lead to Bennett improving her game further. Bennett, who was a lock down defender, needs to work on her moves to the basket. But, knowing his point guard, Smith doesn’t think this will take Bennett too long to pick up.
“I would like to work on her moves to the basket, (such as) euro step, step back and her outside shot off the dribble,” Smith said. “She has great form and isn’t afraid to take it to the hoop, so I don’t think this will be too much of a challenge for her.”
With teammates around her that have some minutes playing varsity, Bennett won’t have to shoulder the load by herself, but she will have to continue to grow as a player, taking on the leaderships roles that players like Clark previously held. Again, Smith is confident that next year will be a good one for Bennett, who brings a certain aura to the court.
“When Mackenzie isn’t at open gyms, practice or games, you know something is really wrong. I feel like the atmosphere is different without her there. She just adds that hard working, goofy, overflowing personality that every coach dreams of having,” Smith said. “She has so much talent, but she works hard for it, she never says no and will do what you ask of her. I look forward to next year with MacKenzie and hope that she knows she has accomplished great things as a sophomore, but has so much more to do.”