Former LSU volleyball standout Angela Bensend returns to Louisiana _lowres

Advocate photo by ROD WALKER -- Angela Bensend, a former LSU volleyball player, competes at AVP New Orleans on Friday, April 15, 2016.

For Angela Bensend, it was a homecoming of sorts.

The Texas native returned to Louisiana on Friday — just an hour away from where she starred in college at LSU — to compete in the AVP New Orleans Open in Kenner.

Her parents were there, sitting courtside in their LSU lawn chairs.

Her sister and aunt were also there, as well as perhaps her biggest, and at the same time her smallest fan: 19 month-old niece Mary Jo Carmichael, there to watch “Aunt Benny” play.

“It’s awesome to be back,” Bensend said. “It’s exciting to be on the court again, and it was a good start to the season.”

The New Orleans stop is the first stop on the tour and Bensend and teammate Geena Urango got off to a grand start, beating Kristine Monforte and Traci Morin 21-15, 21-10 in the opening round.

The windy conditions didn’t seem to bother Bensend and Urango one bit.

“We practice in the wind some,” Bensend said. “It’s always difficult. It was a little swirly, but I think we handled ourselves well and kept control of our side. Geena did a good job of playing defense, and we took care of business.”

Bensend and Urango, or Team TexMex as they call themselve,s will play Whitney Pavlik and Shelia Shaw on Saturday in the second round of the tournament, which concludes on Sunday.

Bensend and Urango are hoping to do better than last year, when they finished third in the inaugural event in New Orleans. It was their second-best finish last season in the tour. Their best finish was a second-place finish in Ohio.

“That’s definitely our goal,” Bensend said. “We just have to take care of business. We had a good seed going into this. As long as we play our game, I think we can do well.”

Her proud parents, who made the trip from north Texas, will be sitting courtside watching as long as Bensend is playing.

“I told her years ago that I’d come watch her even if she was just playing tiddly winks,” her father, Elliot Bensend, said. “I just love to watch her play.”

Neither parent ever imagined Bensend would go this far in volleyball. She started out playing a little bit of everything, from soccer to softball to volleyball.

“Anything with a ball, she wanted to play,” said Paula Bensend, Angela’s mom.

She finally began concentrating strictly on volleyball around the eighth grade. But even then, her parents had no idea just how far the sport would take her.

“We never in a million years thought she’d be able to play for a Division I college,” Paula Bensend said. “People started telling us that around 10th grade, but we didn’t really believe it. But she is the one that just kept pushing and pushing herself, and all of sudden, the colleges became interested.”

She earned all-Southeastern Conference honors at LSU. Paula and Elliot assumed their daughter’s volleyball career was over after college. Turns it, it was just beginning.

“We thought she was lucky just to go to college and play, then all of a sudden she went to Italy to play for six months,” Paula Bensend said. “We thought that was it then she decided to try sand. She just made her own path.”

Bensend and Urango are the No. 4 seed in the tournament and will play the No. 5 seed Saturday morning.

Urango said the balance between herself and Bensend is what has helped their success.

“She’s fiery,” Urango said. “I’m calm and quiet, and she is really loud and fiery. I help calm her down when things get a little tense. She brings me out and fires me up.”

On the men’s side, Mark Burik and Russ Marchewka had the Friday’s biggest upset. Burik and Marchewka, a No. 12 seed, beat No. 5 Casey Jennings and Bill Kolinske.