LHS girls trapped by winter weather after Florida hoops tourney

By Benny Westcott
Lebanon Local

The Lebanon High School girls basketball team was looking for a new experience when they headed out to KSA Events’ 2022 Basketball Classic, held Dec. 19-23 in Kissimmee, Fla.
It was.
The Warriors faced some good opposition, going 1-2 against teams from three different states: Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.
But while that competition from far-flung regions provided an interesting change of pace for the Oregonians, the real memories – and biggest challenge – were only just beginning.
The team’s travel itinerary for the return trip to Oregon took some notable twists and turns, leaving 41 Lebanon athletes, coaches and parents stranded in the Sunshine State for Christmas and beyond.
The Warriors were scheduled to fly out of Orlando International Airport at 6:36 a.m. Friday, Dec. 23, but winter weather systems throughout the country delayed the flight to 8:15 a.m., then to 9 a.m. Then, around noon, the flight was canceled altogether. (These snags plagued travelers across the nation; according to flight tracker FlightAware, U.S. airlines grounded more than 12,000 flights, roughly 14% of their schedules, between Wednesday and Saturday, Dec. 21-24.)
The girls spent 13 hours at the airport that day as Head Coach Mardy Benedict tried to arrange a flight.
“It was crazy,” he recalled.
His efforts eventually yielded a potential flight from Tampa Bay the following afternoon, and KSA Events graciously allowed the team to stay another night at the Gaylord Palms Resort, where the tournament had been held.
But it wouldn’t be the last night they’d spend at the hotel. Benedict got a call at 10 a.m. the next day, Christmas Eve, from Alaska Airlines, informing him that their afternoon flight had already left – at 6 a.m. The airline representative told the coach that the mess-up occurred on its own end, and that the earliest the team could fly back would be Wednesday, Dec. 28.
So Benedict had to break the news to his players that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
“It was pretty hard for them,” he said. “I just felt for them. None of them have ever not been at home for Christmas, so it was just a bunch of emotions.”

HAVING FUN, Lebanon basketball players and their families make a stop at a Build-A-Dino store in Orlando.

Meanwhile, KSA Events arranged for the players to continue staying at the resort.
“That hotel was amazing,” Benedict said. “I’m not going to tell you that it was bad, because it was good.”
The organization even paid for a Christmas Eve meal, and when news of the team’s travel woes reached Oregon, Lebanon School District’s Booster Club helped pay for a Christmas dinner. Parents organized a scavenger hunt and a white elephant gift exchange. The team sang “The Twelve of Christmas,” and took part in an activity day at the nearby Build-a-Dino store.
“All the parents were great during this thing, at just trying to work through things, supporting the coaching staff, and trying to help in organizing,” Benedict said. “We figured, ‘It’s not home, and it’s not your family, but let’s make the most out of this thing.’ It took the kids’ minds off of what they were missing at home, at least for little bits of time.”
On Dec. 28, a first group of travelers finally flew out of Orlando at 6 a.m. to Portland International Airport, while a second group left at 7:45 p.m., ending the saga and returning the team and its entourage to the Pacific Northwest.
Benedict still looks back on the whole event with a certain sense of disbelief.
“Who would have thought that you’re going to Florida and then you can’t get back because of ice and stuff like that, even to Oregon?” he said, noting that Alaska Airlines reached out to him in the trip’s aftermath. “They’ve contacted me and said they’re super sorry and they’ll make things right.”
Recalling the ordeal, junior Abby Brandt said, “We got to do a lot of team bonding. It was eye-opening to see everyone react to it, but once we settled back down, it was a good time for growth and getting to know each other. It was definitely an experience I’m going to look back on. But it was hard to be away from [my] family during Christmas.”
Benedict suspects that Brandt won’t be the only player with vivid, lifelong memories of Christmas 2022.
“I’m proud of the girls,” he said. “I’m glad they all got home safe. It will definitely be a story to tell for life.”