The Kenny Brooks coaching era is set to begin in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech women’s basketball opens the season against the defending Big South champion, UNC Asheville, Friday afternoon at 3:30 inside Cassell Coliseum.
Brooks comes over to Virginia Tech after 18 years (14 as head coach) at James Madison University, where he compiled an impressive record of 337-122. After a couple of mediocre seasons, the Hokies seemed poised for a turnaround under the tutelage of Brooks.
The transition from Harrisonburg to Blacksburg hasn’t necessarily been seamless for Brooks, however.
“It’s been a whirlwind, it really has,” said Brooks. “A lot of times you think the similarities would be here because obviously we’re two state schools and two hours apart, but they operate very differently. It’s been a whirlwind for me and my staff to get acclimated to everything Virginia Tech. You’re in the process of doing that and the season sneaks up on you. You have to get ready for it, not only get ready for it, but you have to be ready for a very challenging schedule. When I was at Madison, we might have one or two of these games, at most three during the course of a year, but when I look at our ACC slate it makes me a little worrisome. We’re excited and we’re looking forward to the challenges.
“It’s night and day. Each school is going to operate differently based on the personality of the administration and what not, but there’s so many differences. I don’t think you’re going to find any two schools who are exactly alike. I was at James Madison for 18 straight years, and I watched that school develop into what it is today. When you come to somewhere else you have to learn a whole new system, so that has been the challenging part.”
At JMU, Brooks built the program from the ground up into a proven winner. Year in and year out, the Dukes were a formidable opponent, winning the CAA in Brooks’ last three years. He hopes to apply the same model he used at a mid-major school to the ACC now.
“We’re going to come in and we don’t think there’s any quick fixes,” said Brooks. “We think you have to do it the right way. Get the right kind of kids in here who are really going to buy into the system and understand that they can win. I think that the foundation is here. We have some kids who have had success. I think you have to build upon that as opposed to trying to fix it quickly.
“We really built a mantra that it was us against the world and the kids really took pride in everything that we did at JMU. I think it still resonates to that program now that it’s just really taking pride in your school. I think we need to do the same thing here. A lot of times there’s some schools that are going to be able to attract a lot of McDonald’s All-Americans. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that. I think there’s a possibility, but I think we need to go in and get character kids. Kids who want to come in here and work extremely hard and then develop into a championship culture. That’s what we did at James Madison, we recruited kids who weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans or they weren’t even ranked extremely high. We took those kids and we developed them, and they were able to compete on a high level. As a result, we had three kids who were drafted into the WNBA. We had a total of six who played in the WNBA at some point and time during our tenure. We’ve had the last three Players of the Year in our conference, and they were all three different kids. It was because of their will to develop, and they developed. We beat the UVA’s and the Wake Forest’s and the UCLA’s of that nature because we worked hard and we developed that culture and that’s what we need to do here.”
Now having had just eight months to instill his culture into the program, Brooks has highlighted one key aspect that he expects out of all five players on the court: sacrifice.
“My whole thing right now is to play for each other,” Brooks said. “If they can go out and sacrifice for the betterment of the team, if they can sacrifice for their teammate right beside them then everything else will come. In this day and age, a lot of times kids will get wallowed into their self-pity so to speak. If something is not going well for them, then they think that they’re not helping the team and they just focus on that. If something is not going well for you, then you need to do something else. Play harder for your teammates. If we can develop that mentality I think that we’ll be well on our way.”
In fact, the theme of sacrifice has been so apparent that both senior Vanessa Panousis and redshirt sophomore Regan Magarity mentioned it when asked about the main message Brooks has been preaching to the team.
“Pretty much sacrificing for each other, making sure that we have each other’s backs,” said Panousis. “The big thing is being together, being a sisterhood.”
“We talk a lot about sacrifice, so always having each other’s backs, being there for your sister,” Magarity said. “To be able to trust each other we obviously have to be able to communicate. The sacrifice and the communication part are the two main focuses.”
One of the hardest jobs for a new coach like Brooks is developing a connection with the players after the prior coach is gone. He has to learn all the different personalities, while the players have to become accustomed to a new style of coaching. So far, Magarity has enjoyed the work under the helm of Brooks.
“It’s been great,” Magarity said. “The staff is really supportive. They put a lot of emphasis on the fundamentals and teaching us the basics. Obviously his style is different from Coach Wolff. They’re just teaching us what they want to do and how they want it done. Practice is high intensity; it’s a lot of fun. We enjoy practice, so we’re definitely ready for the season.”
Brooks next order of business is now getting the players to fully buy into his system. He talked about progress in that area, but there is still more work to be done.
“I don’t know if they’ve bought in yet,” Brooks said. “I know they’re buying in more and more every day. I think it’s a process. I don’t think I’m just going to walk out there and be able to sell ice to an Eskimo. They’re going to have to see some of the results. They’re going to have to go through some of the adversity and get through it so they can see how important it is. It’s going to take time. We get to a point where we want instant gratification, instant success, and I don’t think Justin [Fuente] is helping me out a lot because he’s come in here and they have had instant success.”
The Hokies return a solid core of players who Brooks expects to fill out the starting five. Sophomore Chanette Hicks will handle the point and be complemented by Panousis and Sam Hill as the off-ball guards. Sidney Cook and Magarity are expected to comprise the frontcourt down low.
“The core of the returners starts with Chanette Hicks,” Brooks said. “I think she had an up and down year last year. I thought she really came out and played well in spurts. We need her to be a little more consistent. We need Sid Cook to be a little more consistent. I think Sid showed flashes of brilliance last year. We need her to be more consistent for us to know what we’re going to get from her on a game to game basis. Regan Magarity has had a really good preseason. Obviously we need her to stay healthy for us to be successful. Sammy Hill has played extremely well. She’s probably been the surprise for me. I think she averaged 2.5 points a game last year, but she’s looking like a prominent scorer for us. Vanessa Panousis has done a really good job at transitioning from point guard position a couple years ago to last year she played the off guard position. That was a big transition for her because she is used to having the ball in her hand. She will continue to play off the ball again for us this year. I’m looking to exploit her shooting ability.”
The depth for the Hokies is a little thin at the moment with Rachel Camp out at the start of the season with shin splints. However, Brooks said he’ll look to the junior college transfer Diandra DaRosa for some key minutes off the bench. Freshmen Genesis Parker and Kaela Kinder will be cast into the action and have to quickly learn to play at a level beyond the label of a freshman.
So what can Hokies fans look for when Virginia Tech takes the floor for the first time under Brooks?
“Pushing the ball on offense, trying to get quick and early shots, but making sure that they’re good shots,” Panousis said. “Just moving the ball, trying to get looks for everyone. Making sure that we’re moving the ball and not letting it stick. Defensively, I think it’s more of like a pack defense. Having each other’s backs, that’s where sacrificing comes into play. Making sure that we’re there in the gap helping.”
The up-tempo style of offense appears to fit the Hokies’ current roster. Hicks, the lightning quick guard, can get the ball moving in transition to set up the shooters like Panousis. As a matter of fact, Panousis could very easily enter the record books as Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in three-pointers made. Panousis enters the year with 198 three pointers in her career, while Carrie Mason currently holds the record of 200 made three pointers.
“It’s well-documented that she’s a very good shooter,” said Brooks. “She’s three off of becoming the all-time leader in three-pointers made in Virginia Tech history.”
Despite having a propensity to shoot from beyond the arc, Panousis has still been hard at work with the new coaching staff to see a continual improvement in her shooting touch.
“My shooting with the new coaches that have come in – Coach Poppie and Coach Brooks have just been giving me little tips on how to improve my shooting because last year wasn’t my best shooting season,” Panousis said. “Those tips have definitely helped. I think just to maintain my confidence throughout the season. I think last year I got into a little slump with myself, but I think I need to maintain my confidence and have confidence in the coaching staff and my teammates around me.”
There’s some lofty expectations for Brooks and company as the Hokies will be looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. At the moment, Brooks is just keeping things simple and hoping to see constant improvement along the way.
“Our ultimate goal, and I hate to be cliche, is to get better every game,” Brooks explained. “I can’t put an expectation on wins and losses. I have never coached these kids other than a scrimmage game, so when you’ve had the success that we had at James Madison, a lot of it was predicated on I knew what to expect from each and every kid because I had coached them in multiple games. I knew when the lights went on what they were going to be like. I knew what the atmosphere was going to be like in the building and I don’t know any of that right now. It’s going to take me a few games to really understand the personalities of these kids because anyone can go out and practice, but performing in the game is a little different. I’m going to need that experience with them so my only expectation is for us to get better and better every day.”
The countdown is on for Brooks and his coaching debut before the Virginia Tech faithful. All the pieces are in place, now it’s just time to trust the process and see the results in due time.