From the moment Eddie Benton arrived as Oakland Catholic’s new girls basketball coach, the former Perry and University of Vermont standout made one thing very clear.
Although he was moving to the high school ranks for the first time after spending more than two decades as an assistant or head coach at the collegiate level — including spending last season as an assistant at SEC women’s power Mississippi State — he would not be changing anything about his coaching style.
For some high schoolers, Benton’s intense demeanor and the demanding nature of his practices could come as a bit of a shock, but not these Eagles. Led by the dynamic senior duo of Alexa Washington (15.8 points per game) and Halena Hill (13 ppg), Oakland Catholic (15-2, 8-0) is on a 13-game winning streak as of Monday night, and the Eagles have soared to the top of Class 5A Section 3 with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
“I’m doing the same exact stuff I did at the college level now. I’m just bringing a college approach to Oakland Catholic,” Benton said. “My style is a lot different than what they’re used to. So I didn’t know how quickly they were going to buy into change, but they surprised me. They bought in right away.
“They’re playing extremely hard, they’re very coachable, and I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls.”
After helping Perry win a 1991 PIAA Class 3A title as a junior, Benton scored 2,474 points at Vermont and graduated as the program’s all-time leading scorer. He played professionally in the Continental Basketball Association as well as overseas in Israel and Venezuela before turning to coaching in 1999, making stops at La Roche College, Robert Morris, St. Francis (Pa.), Cincinnati, Brown and Mississippi State.
Bringing more than 20 years of collegiate coaching experience to Oakland Catholic, Benton boasts quite the resume, but even his players didn’t expect to win 13 in a row after starting the season 2-2.
Then again, not all losses are created equal, and both of the Eagles’ defeats came against national powerhouses in the She Got Game Classic. On back-to-back nights, Oakland Catholic lost to Dr. Phillips, Fla., (56-47 on Dec. 9) and St. John’s College, D.C. (63-41, Dec. 10). The Eagles then defeated Bishop O’Connell, Va., 59-40, on Dec. 11 to return home with a little bit of momentum and some invaluable experience.
“We all knew we had this potential. But it’s still kind of a shocker when you think about how successful our season has been,” Hill said. “Those two games we did lose were definitely very tough competition.”
Since returning home, the Eagles have done nothing but dominate their foes, winning 11 of their past 12 games by 18-plus points. The lone exception? Section rival McKeesport, which hung tight until the end of a back-and-forth battle that Oakland Catholic won, 59-51, on Jan. 17. The game was tied going into the fourth quarter before the Eagles pulled away to take over sole possession of first place in the section with a huge road win.
The rematch between the two teams looms large in the last week of the season on Feb. 9, and the section title will almost certainly be on the line. But for now, Benton and his players are just staying in the moment and enjoying this hot streak for as long as it lasts.
Oh, and Benton’s notoriously grueling two-to-three hour practices? Those are still going strong, too.
“It’s definitely intense,” Hill said. “I think he was really the perfect fit for us. We always had the talent there. I just think we needed someone to give us that push, and he does a perfect job of giving us that push we need to be where we need to be.”
Washington, a North Florida recruit, had already developed a reputation as one of the top guards in Class 5A, going back to her sophomore season when she earned all-section honors while averaging 13.2 points. Although she spent the first three years of her career as a point guard, Washington has made a seamless transition to shooting guard as a senior.
Rachel Haver, who earned all-section honors as a freshman in 2019, has done a great job of distributing the ball while still scoring when she needs to as the team’s new point guard. In turn, Washington plays off the ball and gets more open looks while manning the same position she played under Benton on her AAU team with the Western PA Bruins.
“I was kind of happy to switch, because I felt like I could benefit the team more on the wing,” Washington said. “I think it’s helping prepare me for my college career in the future. That’s all [Benton] does. He wants what’s best for us. He wants to win.”
Meanwhile, Hill has stepped into the spotlight alongside Washington, erupting for a pair of 30-point games while making seven-plus 3-pointers in a game on multiple occasions. The two provide a deadly shooting combo beyond the arc and help spread the floor to make life easier for their teammates, especially 6-foot senior forward Jill Gallo.
“Halena has always been my sidekick. We’ve played since we were in fourth grade together,” Washington said. “I’m not a point guard any more like I was. But with our dribble drive, I’m able to see the floor a little better and kick it to her with the defense collapsing.”
As great as the Eagles have been playing lately, though, they’re well aware that defending champion South Fayette is riding a lengthy winning streak of its own, and the Lions are still the team to beat in Class 5A until proven otherwise. After all, South Fayette handed Oakland Catholic a pair of losses last season when the teams were still section foes — and although they won’t see each other in the regular season this year, you can bet the Eagles would cherish a chance to face the Lions again, this time with a WPIAL title at stake.
To Benton, though, wins and championships are secondary to developing his players on and off the court to ensure they’re ready to succeed in college and beyond. And if a section, WPIAL or state title is the byproduct of that approach, even better.
“I want to win a lot of games, but that’s not the reason why I’m bringing that approach,” Benton said. “I just want to make sure that our seniors and every young lady in our program, when they go to college, their transition is seamless. They know the things those college coaches are looking for. The work ethic.
“You’ve got to be prompt. You’ve got to be on time. You’ve got to do well in school. We harp on that all the time. We’re just trying to build a culture. I want those young ladies to know what it’s like to be college athletes now.”