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Athletes of Distinction

BJ Graber Award
2013 Betty Jo Graber Award - Vanessa Benke
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – College of Central Florida outside hitter Vanessa Benke was announced as the winner of the 2013 Betty Jo Graber Award by the NJCAA national office on Wednesday. Benke was honored with the award that is presented annually to the country’s top female student-athlete.

“I feel very proud of myself for being an international student and being able to receive such award,” Benke said. “This is a huge accomplishment in my life and I could not be happier. I know how hard athletes work in order to excel in what they want to pursue in life. For me, it was not any different. I gave my best to my teammates and coaches during these past two years playing at the College of Central Florida.”

As part of the Patriots’ inaugural recruiting class, Benke has led the program from scratch to success after its debut season in 2011. Behind Benke’s stellar play, Central Florida has won back-to-back district titles and appeared in the NJCAA DI Volleyball National Championship in each of its first two seasons.

“When we started in 2011, Vanessa understood her role and took the responsibility of being the glue that kept the team together,” said Central Florida head coach Flavia Siqueira. “She gave her best in every practice, every work out and every game. She also took the time to understand and help her teammates during both seasons. Vanessa spoke with our coaching staff about the opponents and always asked to watch game footage prior and after a match. Her work ethic is incredible and as I mentioned to our director before, we will not be able to find another Vanessa for many years to come.”

Earning Florida College System Activities Association (FCSAA) Player of the Year, Benke led the Patriots to a sixth place finish at the 2012 national tournament. The sophomore earned first-team All-America honors and for the second consecutive season was named Mid-Florida Conference Player of the Year and a first-team All-District selection. Benke led Central Florida with 3.7 kills and 4.2 digs per set in 2012.

“Vanessa knew that our team depended on her performance very much to succeed and at moments she let the pressure get to her,” Siqueira said. “However, she matured very much throughout season and understood that the team did not need her to score 20 points per match. The team needed her to be Vanessa – a very passionate, vocal, and controlled player. Of course she is a very skilled player in all aspects of the game and we have no doubt that her stats contributed very much to our record, but more than that, her personality and hard work in practices helped the team become better and better every day.”

In her freshman campaign, Benke was tabbed a second-team All-American after leading Central Florida with 3.8 kills and 3.8 digs per set. The Patriots came home from the national tournament with a seventh place finish in 2011, while Benke was named the College of Central Florida Female Athlete of the Year.

“To be honest, the fact that we were starting a program was not scary to me” Benke said. “Talking to Coach Flavia before the season started made me realize that she was not going to build a team just to have fun playing volleyball. She did a very good job recruiting an entire team filled with talented players. I believe what made us very successful was how mentally tough we had to be during practices, which prepared us to play against anybody.”

Despite her extraordinary success on the court, Benke’s accomplishments in the classroom have been equally impressive. Compiling a 3.81 grade-point average in 72 credit hours, the liberal arts major earned the FCSAA Roberta Stokes Scholar Athlete of the Year Award in March. Benke was also recognized by the NJCAA for her academic success with the Superior Academic Achievement award.

“Since I was a young girl, my parents made me understand how important (academics) would be for my future,” Benke said. “I know that dedication and effort will make a better professional in any area I desire to pursue.”

Making Benke’s academic success even more impressive is the fact that she is a native of Brazil and has spoken Portuguese for a large portion of her life. One of the biggest challenges that Benke faced when she arrived on campus was overcoming the language barrier.

“I did take a few English classes while studying in Brazil, but I realized once I arrived in the United States that I did not know anything,” Benke said. “My conversation stopped at, ‘How have are you? Fine, thanks!’ I have to confess that the English language is harder than I imagined. There are still moments of frustration as I sometimes have doubts about a word or phrase, but I know I will continue to learn the language and get better in my studies.”

Benke’s efforts on the court and in the classroom were matched by her dedication to her community. Utilizing her volleyball expertise, Benke worked with local youth volleyball clubs as both an official and volunteer coach. Benke also participated in several fundraising activities such as the March of Dimes, Heart Walk and Ocala Maratahon.

“I believe she understands that she has been very fortunate to have the life she has,” Siqueira said. “Vanessa has a very supportive and loving family and was able to live a social economic lifestyle that provided her a lot of comfort. Being a smart young lady, she knows that not many people can say the same about their lives and families. Therefore, helping others has been a way to give back to the community.”

“In Brazil, we have a lot of less fortunate people and for me it is a pleasure helping others who need,” Benke said. “There is always a lesson to be learned when helping the community and also understanding how important it is to be thankful.”

Staying in the Sunshine State, Benke will continue her collegiate career next season at Florida Gulf Coast.

“We are thrilled to have Vanessa entering our program,” said Florida Gulf Coast head coach Dave Nichols. “She is extremely talented with great leadership qualities.  She plays the game with intensity and intelligence and commitment, and those same qualities come through in all aspects of her as a student-athlete and a person.   We consider ourselves lucky to have such a quality player and person coming into our program.”

“I am sure Vanessa will do well at FGCU,” Siqueira said. “She is a very good volleyball player who possesses beautiful ball control and can play different positions if needed. She will also bring to her new team a lot of experience and the desire to continue to accomplish her goals and succeed in life. We are very excited to continue to watch Vanessa play next year.”

Betty Jo Graber spent 35 years advancing opportunities for women in NJCAA athletics. Along with a successful basketball coaching career at Weatherford College, she was also the Region 5 Women’s Director, the NJCAA Women’s Basketball Committee Chair and a founding member of the NJCAA Women’s Division. Graber is a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Tennessee. Graber was the perfect model of hard work, discipline, ethics and excellence in community college athletics. This award is given annually to the NJCAA Student-Athlete that best exhibits these traits.

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) is the governing body of two-year college athletics, offering endless athletic and academic opportunities to college students. It is the second largest national intercollegiate athletic organization in the United States with over 500 member schools in 43 states. Each year over 50,000 student-athletes compete in one of 28 different sports and the organization sponsors 48 national championship events and nine football bowl games each year. For more visit www.njcaa.org.


Year Name School
 2011-12   Tryshia Centeno  Indian River State College, Fla. 
 2010-11    Mitsuki Katahira  Daytona State College, Fla. 
 2009-10   Kelly Closse  South Plains College, Texas 
 2008-09   Nicole Race  Redlands CC, Okla. 
 2007-08   Lindsey Palmer  Salt Lake CC, Utah 
 2006-07   Kristina Jenkins  Hudson Valley CC, N.Y. 
 2005-06   Sally Kipyego  South Plains College, Texas 
 2004-05   Chelsie Mesa  Phoenix College, Ariz.
 2003-04   Heidi Brooks  Corning CC, N.Y. 
 2002-03   Natashia Morehead  Gulf Coast CC, Fla.
 2001-02   Yuliana Perez  Pima CC, Ariz.
 2000-01   Stephanie Martin  College of Southern Idaho 
 1999-00   Devra Viekant  Utah Valley State College 
 1998-99   Yalika Barnes  Trinity Valley CC, Texas 
 1997-98   Kaundra Kay Williams   Gulf Coast CC, Fla. 
 1996-97   Nicole Weed  Daytona Beach CC, Fla. 
 1995-96   Tricia Ferrin  Utah Valley State College
 1994-95   Kay Mannebach  Colby CC, Kan.
 1993-94   Nema Corey  Meridian CC, Miss.
 1992-93  Carey Burton  Barton County CC, Kan.

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