Before Notre Dame women’s basketball’s game against the University of North Carolina, Fighting Irish guard Lili Thompson was hyping up Hart girls basketball product Nicole Benz.
“You’ve got to be ready when you get in there,” Thompson told Benz.
Benz shook it off. As a manager-turned-player, she wasn’t expecting to see much action – if any – in the Feb. 1 game.
Her expectations were exceeded, though, as she scored a 3-pointer that very night. Her first collegiate basket.
The situation just about summed up her college experience so far. She came in with a realistic outlook on how her time at UND would go but was catapulted into a basketball frenzy.
When it came to choosing a college, Benz looked at top schools like Northwestern, Princeton, Penn and Boston College were all options. But it was Notre Dame that stole her heart.
“After I visited Notre Dame in the spring, I couldn’t really see myself going anywhere else and just absolutely fell in love with it,” said Benz.
After getting into the groove of classes and learning to manage college life, Benz sought out to become a manager for the women’s basketball team. Shortly after going through the manager application process, she received a school-wide email stating that due to a string of injuries, the women’s basketball program, which has appeared in seven NCAA Final Fours, was holding open tryouts.
Benz, who averaged 13.1 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game in her senior season with the Indians, decided to go for it.
“I figured it was just a really cool opportunity to go practice and maybe meet some girls I can play pickup with after,” she said.
“… I just honestly thought it would just be fun to see where the team practiced and just get a feel for it.”
She was cut after the final round of tryouts, but was still assumed the role of manager after making connections with team staff.
“That was still really something I wanted to do,” she said of the manager job. “That was pretty much my goal the whole time, the walk-on thing was kind of far out of sight.”
For the first semester of her freshman year, Benz learned the ropes of being a basketball manager. She loved being around the other seven managers and the program as a whole.
Injury struck the team once again and brought the scholarship roster down to seven, with the addition of three walk-ons.
So, on Jan. 7, Benz suited up for an away game at Georgia Tech. She played one minute.
“It was just the coolest experience ever,” she said. “Just putting on the jersey and I don’t know, I’ve been a huge Notre Dame fan for a long time and it’s just incredibly surreal to consider that I’m in some way part of the sports tradition here.”
Benz is unsure of what her future role will be with the team. For the moment, though, she’s focused on living out her Notre Dame dream.