Brian Bennett doesn't subscribe to Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Slim-Fast. But his diet -- he lost 54 pounds in eight months and improved his 40-yard dash time by nine-tenths of a second and his vertical leap high enough to dunk with two hands -- ought to be endorsed by every calorie-counter who ever was tempted by a pepperoni pizza.
At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Bennett has emerged as a difference-maker in Plainfield East's surprising but impressive run for recognition as one of the leading teams in the Chicago area. The Bengals are 6-0 after Friday's 58-39 victory over Plainfield Central. They will meet Minooka Friday before competing in the Pekin Holiday Tournament.
That's a pretty good start for a three-year-old school with an enrollment of 1,900 students that still is trying to fit the right keys in the right doors. It is the fourth high school in the fast-growing Plainfield school district that once projected five by 2012.
"Knowing how young and inexperienced we were in the last two years, when we were 9-16 and 15-13, we have made a complete 180-degree change," Bennett said. "We have nine guys from last year's team. All of us have matured and gotten serious about what we want to do, how bad we want it, how much we love the game. It's an incredible thing to see."
Bennett is an incredible thing to see. Last year, he couldn't jump over a gum wrapper. He lacked agility. He had no lateral movement. He couldn't run up and down the court for more than three minutes at a time. He was timed with a sun dial, not a stopwatch. He weighed 294 pounds.
After the season, coach Joe Callero of California Polytechnic Institute (Cal-Poly), who was recruiting Bennett, told him: "If you want to be a Division I athlete, you have to do this -- change your diet, change your game, think about your quickness at the next level, think about your mindset and think about how other bodies look at the next level."
Plainfield East coach Branden Adkins and assistant Greg Bayer also chimed in with the same message. Everybody agreed that Bennett had big-time potential -- how many teams have a 6-foot-9 player under the basket? -- but he wasn't going to show it in a 300-pound body.
"I knew I didn't have the year I wanted," Bennett said. "If I wanted it enough, I wasn't a Division I athlete at the weight I was at, maybe Division III. I had to change everything. So two weeks after the season, I put it in gear. If I took everything seriously, if I went from a big kid to a big athletic kid, I would be much better and the team would be much better."
His diet plan called for cutting out all soda pop, pie, chips, extra sweets and snacks and consuming much less ice cream. He concentrates on juice, water, more fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish and celery. He sets one day or meal a week to "cheat" by enjoying pizza. He wasn't big on oranges at one time. Now he endorses them.
Away from the dinner table, Bennett is a workout freak. Last summer, he was in the weight room once a day for three hours. During the school day, he lifts weights two or three times a day. He began running more, sometimes three miles at a time, then working out on a treadmill and exercise bike and engaging in agility exercises.
The result is Bennett can do things he couldn't do before. His old jersey is three sizes too big. For the first time, he can dunk with both hands. He can run up and down the court without getting tired. When he lowered his 40-yard dash time from 5.8 seconds to 4.9, he began to think about being a tight end or offensive lineman on the football team.
Then he came to his senses. "It wasn't for me. Basketball is my love and my calling," he said.
"It's crazy to see how far I have come," he said. "I compare my 40-yard dash times and weight lifting and agility tests from last year. Before, I didn't have leaping ability. The biggest difference from the end of AAU to the beginning of the high school season is I noticed I didn't get tired running up and down the court. My cardio was so much better. I had better endurance. Last year, I would have been gassed."
With a new body and a new commitment and excellent academic credentials (4.75 grade-point average on 5.0 scale, 25 ACT), he accepted a scholarship offer by Cal-Poly. And he is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds for a Plainfield East team that began to turn heads when it won the St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament and beat highly rated Downers Grove South.
"It is a great feeling to know that all my hard work is showing," Bennett said. "It gives me more self-motivation to keep working as hard as I have been working."
Adkins likes what he sees. "He always had size and potential. But he worked hard. You can see his improvement. Now he looks like an athlete. He was slow before. But he committed himself to the weight room and diet. He set a goal to be a Division I athlete and that is what he has become," the coach said.
Adkins, 38, is a Pekin graduate of 1991. He got hooked on high school basketball when his father took him to watch Pekin games when he was seven -years-old. He saw Pekin beat Peoria Manual in four overtimes and couldn't get over how exciting the whole experience was.
"My skills didn't let me be a very good basketball player," he recalled. "I was a cerebral guy. I understood the game. I listened. I led the team in floor burns. But I couldn't shoot or pass or dribble. I was only 5-foot-6. But I wanted to stay in it. So I wanted to get into coaching."
He learned as an assistant to highly respected coach Cal Hubbard at Normal University High, who won 363 games and one state championship in 18 years. He was at Plainfield South from 2002 to 2007, then was athletic director and dean of students at Glenbard North in 2007-08 before launching the boys basketball program at Plainfield East.
"We knew this senior group was deep and special. It has size, good guards, quickness and strength. They jelled well," Adkins said. "They didn't have chemistry last year. But they set goals for themselves. They set aside individual goals for team goals. I knew these kids were different from the second day of practice. I knew they could compete."
Bennett may be the biggest but he isn't the only contributor. Dee Brown (14 points per game), a 6-foot senior guard, was the MVP of the St. Charles East tournament. Other reliable scorers are 6-foot-3 seniors Austin Robinson (13 ppg), Myles Walters (7 ppg) and Desnique Harris (4 ppg), 6-foot senior Mack Brown (8 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior point guard Jawan Straughter.
Against Plainfield Central, Bennett had 18 points and six rebounds while Mack Brown scored 19. Dee Brown's three-point play with 23 seconds left in the third quarter gave the Bengals a 39-33 lead and sparked a 14-0 run that turned the contest into a rout.
"Different kids step up in every game," Adkins said. "Our notoriety is surprising. We like to stay under the radar. We don't talk about ratings now. It is nice because it puts Plainfield East on the map. But the ultimate goal is where we are at the end of the season."
For the time being, Adkins is eager to make his players understand the challenge that is ahead of them and what it means to be the first senior class at a school that is just beginning to make a name for itself.
"We talk about them leaving their stamp as seniors," Adkins said. "There has been a lot of talk about them since they were freshmen. They have a lot of potential. They will set the tradition for Plainfield East. Our motto is: 'Becoming a champion.' There are things you have to have in place to be a champion. Now they are listening."
Adkins cites five characteristics necessary to be a champion -- a positive attitude about anything you are trying to achieve, effort, commitment, discipline and making sacrifices along the way. And athletes must put in a lot of time to master and achieve those characteristics.
He implements his philosophy as Hubbard taught him, by building relationships with his players and knowing how to treat them, individually and as a group.
"You can't treat them all the same. You can't be a dictator," Adkins said. "You must build around the group of kids you have. Sit down and talk to them a lot...about basketball, life, family, their future. You can't coach them the same way."
Bennett and his teammates have bought into it. Although Adkins has preached a team concept, he knows there are higher expectations for him. In the end, if Plainfield East is to advance to Peoria, he knows he will punch the ticket, whether he likes it or not.
"Our first goal is to win conference. Our eyes were on it since day one but we didn't know what it would take. Now we know. And we know how hard we have to work to leave a lasting mark on the conference," he said.
"Knowing I will be the biggest guy on the court in most games means I know I have to be there on offense and defense and on the boards. I am a big part of our team's game. When the expectations I have for myself and the coach has for me are met, our team is flat out good. I can be a difference-maker."