UNSUNG ATHLETES: NorthWood's Bennett eager to lead young Panthers in multiple sports

·6 min read

Aug. 5—NorthWood junior Karis Bennett's path in athletics has been heavily influenced by those who she cares for most in life: her family.

Her mom, Jennifer, played volleyball at the collegiate level, which in turn meant both Karis and her older sister, Annika, played the sport together a lot growing up.

Karis's father, Tom, coached her in basketball during her early middle school days. His impact has helped continue to peak Karis's interest in hoops ever since.

Having a sister just two grades above her, Karis's competitive spirit has been illuminated from a young age as well. Annika's presence has helped Karis grow as a player, a leader and beyond.

"Annika's been a great influence in my life and specifically around sports," Karis said. "She's always led by example, and I've learned a lot from watching her play and interacting with her on and off the court."

Annika's ability to lead by example has helped Karis on her own leadership journey in both basketball and volleyball with the Panthers.

Karis had the opportunity to dip into a leadership role as a sophomore on two young teams. Now, as an upperclassmen, those roles will likely be elevated.

"I'm super excited to continue growing as a leader," Karis said. "Especially in basketball with a really young team. I'm hoping to step into one of the leadership roles there. Same thing with volleyball, we've had really good leaders on the team in the past that I've been able to learn from. I'm hoping to help keep that up, so we can continue having good seasons."

A TALE OF TWO SPORTS

With Annika and Karis's mom having played college volleyball at both Goshen College and Taylor University, spiking the volleyball around with friends and family has been a right of passage for a long time.

"I've played volleyball as long as I can remember," Karis said. "We've always had a net in the backyard. Neighbors and friends would be over all the time, and we'd play a lot. ... It's a sport I've played in elementary, middle school, high school, and I hope to play in college as well."

As a sophomore a season ago, Karis played an integral role in helping NorthWood volleyball catch the eye of the region.

Despite only having two seniors on a 12-player roster, the Panthers went 32-3, winning the Northern Lakes Conference and picking up a sectional championship in the process.

"It was an amazing season to be a part of," Karis said. "We had a great group of girls, great coaches around us, and we all loved working together. Practices were fun, competitive and nobody ever dreaded them. Then on game days, most of the time, we brought that energy needed to win."

After an impressive season that not many saw coming, the Panthers and head coach Hilary Laidig will have to fight off some lofty expectations heading into the 2022 campaign.

"We've been working hard and getting in the gym when we can," Bennett said. "We're really excited about the potential of this team, especially with us having the chance to host sectionals and regionals this year. ... We're ready to go and excited to hopefully continue the momentum (from last year)."

In basketball, Karis has faced some major injury adversity at times, but none more heart-stopping than when she injured her knee early during her eighth grade season.

"I remember it pretty vividly," said Bennett of her injury. "I remember our coach had just called a timeout and told us to become more aggressive in driving the ball rather than shooting around the perimeter.

"During a possession after that, as I drove to the basket, I crossed over a defender. When I made that move, I felt and heard my knee shift out of place and pop. Immediately I was down and knew something was wrong. It was tough, but it definitely allowed me to grow and truly appreciate the game since I was away from it for so long after."

Karis has since recovered fully from the ACL injury, stating that it doesn't bother her at all these days.

The junior will want to be at full strength during her two remaining seasons in high school with some big changes coming to the program.

NorthWood's girls basketball has been in rebuilding mode since the team won a state championship during the 2019-20 season.

The Panthers went just 3-22 a season ago and former head coach Mark Heeter ended up stepping down following the season due to health concerns.

Good things could be on the horizon, though, as 31-year-old Taylor Burkhart will be taking over the team following assistant coaching stints at Bremen, Wawasee and Brownsburg high schools.

Burkhart brings about a lot of basketball knowledge having played collegiately at Saint Francis, and according to Karis, she's liked what she's seen from her new coach early on.

"I'm super hopeful," Bennett said. "We've been able to get in the gym some and work with him. We're kind of figuring him out, while he's figuring us out right now. But I'm excited, because it's a new start, and I've loved what I've seen from (Burkhart) as far as how he relates with the team, how he coaches and so on."

AN INTEREST IN PHYSICAL TRAINING

Sometimes, some of life's worst experiences can bring out unexpected positives.

For Karis, her torn ACL she sustained in junior high may have led her to a future career path.

"When I tore my ACL, it was an experience that really opened my eyes to some things I hadn't ever seen before," Bennett said. "I really enjoyed the physical therapy side of things, so after I recovered, I helped in the athletic training room with Mr. Widner. So far, it's given me really good hands-on experience."

Paul Widner is a state-licensed athletic trainer as well as a physical education teacher at NorthWood High. He's been at the school for more than three decades, leading the NorthWood sports medicine/athletic training program since its beginning in 1987.

Karis has had the opportunity to learn a lot from Widner over the last two spring semesters, and she's enjoyed getting some first-hand experience for what could be in her future.

"Those of us who help out stay after school during practices," Bennett said. "We help with the injured players, so we'll make ice bags, we'll go through the rehab exercises with them. Mr. Widner leads it all, but we help with everything we can, because he has a lot going on. It's cool to be able to get that kind of experience."

Evan Lepak can be reached at evan.lepak@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.