TWIN BRIDGES — RaeAnne Bendon can still remember the emotion in the locker room on March 3 of last year. Bendon and her Twin Bridges teammates sat in the visitor’s locker room at the Belgrade Special Events Center, shocked and wondering where things went wrong.

The Falcons had just dropped a 60-39 semifinal game to eventual state champion Belt. Though Twin recovered to earn the third-place trophy, narrowly defeating Froid-Medicine Lake in the consolation game, the memory of that loss to the Huskies – the team’s only defeat last season – has found its way into Bendon’s mind on numerous occasions.

“We came into this season hungry, obviously,” Bendon said, referencing the semifinal loss as motivation. “We’re ready to get to the tournaments and win everything we can from here on out. Last year, a couple players didn’t get a bunch of playing time, so we were a little worried about them stepping up, but they’ve stepped up perfectly fine. We’re excited about that.”

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Bendon was a key contributor for Josh Keller’s Falcons a season ago, but the motivated point guard was ready to take her game to the next level. She has long dreamed about playing college basketball and knew she would have to hone in on improving her biggest weaknesses.

Shooting, dribbling, getting stronger and faster were all areas of emphasis for Bendon since that final game last March. Though she was driven to make strides in each area of her game, she knew it was a task she couldn’t tackle alone. Bendon, along with Dillon’s Brynley Fitzgerald, began working out with former Twin Bridges and Montana State star Peyton Ferris, who is now playing professionally in Spain. Both high school stars saw immediate results.

“I’m so grateful for having Peyton around. She really helped me focus on the little things, whether it was shooting or dribbling, and working hard on the little things,” Bendon said. “That was really helpful. I’m glad, and it was awesome, that she took the time to come down and work me through that. She’s really funny. She’s goofy like I am and I love it. She’s fun.”

“I probably would have liked to work out with (Bendon and Fitzgerald) more, but what’s great about working with those guys, you come in, and it’s not like we did anything magical, we just put them through drills that tested shooting mentality and things like that,” said Ferris. “Even the times, if something came up where I couldn’t make it, they were still in the gym doing those drills.”

Twin Bridges guard RaeAnne Bendon (right) shares a laugh with former Falcons’ and Montana State standout Peyton Ferris, who now plays in Spain. Ferris mentored Bendon last summer. (MTN Sports photo)

“RaeAnne, she is someone who loves the game and is willing to do anything for it,” Ferris continued. “She works really hard. I obviously haven’t gotten to see any of her games this season, but she wants it so bad. You just hope the pressure doesn’t get to her and affect her play, but she needs to just go out there and play. When she works hard, things come naturally, so she just needs to stick to that. I think she definitely deserves a shot at the NAIA level.“

Coaches have certainly taken notice of the 5-foot-5 guard’s potential. Bendon has landed in the MontanaSports.com “30-point club” three times, scoring a career-high 34 points against West Yellowstone and adding 33 in a hard-fought win over Ennis without all-state teammate Kailee Oliverson.

Efficiency and decision making have become two of Bendon’s greatest strengths, but adapting to the speed of the next level was still an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve gone on visits and played a little bit and it’s definitely higher-paced. Even just playing with Peyton, it’s way more intense and so you have to be really focused and mentally prepared to go into that. I think I’m ready. I just have to keep working hard physically, eating right and staying focused,” said Bendon.

“What coaches don’t understand is that there’s just raw ability right now,” added Ferris. “As soon as someone gets in to work with her, her improvement last summer was huge, so having a consistent position coach with her, she’s only going to keep growing. I think she could turn into an all-conference NAIA player in the future.”

For now, with Montana’s postseason approaching, Bendon and her teammates are dialed in on consistency of their own, looking for another run from districts to divisionals and state. After falling to Drummond minus Oliverson, and losing a low-scoring contest against Ennis, the pressure of completing an undefeated season no longer weighs on Bendon and the Falcons.

“We’re watching scores and everything, paying attention to the good players and what they’re doing, the good teams,” Bendon said. “Obviously we have to win our conference first and focus on that, but after that, Belt beat us last year. I think we’re ready to take them on.”

That would certainly bring about a different emotion in the locker room this year.

RaeAnne Bendon calls out a play for the Twin Bridges offense. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

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