It’s year two of the Kenny Brooks era for the Virginia Tech’s women’s basketball team. Last year in his first season as head coach, Brooks led the Hokies to a 20-14 record before eventually falling to Michigan in the Elite Eight of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
It was a learning experience for Brooks in his first year, adjusting to the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule and a roster of new players he had never coached before. Now, Brooks will be tasked with leading the charge without three seniors from last year’s team: Vanessa Panousis, Samantha Hill, and Sidney Cook. Panousis, Hill, and Cook all started over 30 games last year, and the trio combined for 32.3 points per game.
“Overall we won 20 games, which I didn’t know if we were capable of doing,” Brooks said. “I couldn’t measure the kids’ heart when I took the job. What Vanessa Panousis and Sammy Hill and Sid Cook provided for me was immeasurable. It’s something that I’ll never forget. I learned a lot about what it takes to win in this league. You’re going to have to have depth. You’re going to have to have good players. I thought we had good players, we just didn’t have the depth last year.”
Last year, Brooks and Co. came out of the gate firing and won the first 15 games of the season, including a win in Cassell Coliseum over the heralded Tennessee Volunteers program. During the winning streak, the Hokies rose as high as No. 15 in the nation.
“It almost came too quickly,” Brooks said. “To win the first 15 out of the gate, I think that set us up. Expectations rose and I knew that we were going to struggle to continue that on a nightly basis because we didn’t have the depth. Our first five, I thought they were as talented as anyone’s first five. We couldn’t measure up to the second wave that came in. Winning the first 15 showed us that we could do it if we continued to build our program. We had some good wins during that stretch and I was very proud of it.”
Once Virginia Tech entered conference play, the 15-game winning streak seemed like a memory of the past. The Hokies struggled, finishing 4-12 in the ACC and lost 11 straight at one point, a far cry from the early season success.
“A lot of people, especially my friends and close colleagues, they were calling and checking on me when we were going through our losing streak,” Brooks said. “I haven’t lost like that ever really in my career. To their dismay, I would tell them it was a very enjoyable year, a very educational year. I learned a lot about myself.”
Brooks’ quickly learned that the ACC schedule was a different animal than the CAA schedule that he faced when he was the head coach at James Madison University. At JMU, Brooks went 337-122 over his fourteen years, including 11 consecutive postseason appearances. There was hardly, if ever, a time where Brooks went through a long losing streak like he did in his first year in Blacksburg.
“In the CAA, nothing against the CAA because that’s where I cut my teeth, but there were games on the schedule that you knew you were going to win,” Brooks said. “You could kind of prepare for that. In the ACC, there’s no game that you think you’re going to win. You have to go out and fight and every game is a battle. You might be playing the No. 2 ranked team on Thursday, the No. 7 ranked team on Sunday, and the No. 10 ranked team on the next Thursday. You aspire to be one of those teams that people are fearing to play.
“I took this job because I wanted to be challenged more in my profession. I got it. I love it. The one thing that is interesting to me is I’m not as familiar with this league as I was with the CAA. For the obvious reasons, I haven’t been here that long. You play most teams once and that was an adjustment. In the CAA, you played every team twice, maybe even three times. Really adjusting to playing teams once is what I’m trying to get used to.”
As aforementioned, Virginia Tech’s biggest struggle last year was its lack of depth. It might not have showed early in the season, but once ACC play came around, the lack of depth finally caught up with the Hokies. Through the first two games this year in wins over Wagner (99-32) and Auburn (72-63), Brooks has already showed a rotation of 8-10 players, as opposed to playing mainly six players last year.
“The first day of practice, they’re all kind of jockeying for position because we had so many newcomers,” Brooks said. “What they generated in a very short time, and learning how to play with each other and to play for each other, it’s been both surprising and gratifying to see it happening this quickly. If we continue to do so and learn to play with each other and for each other, I think this team could be really good. We have so many people who could step up on a given night and do wonderful things.”
Heading into this season, a lot of the hype surrounded JUCO transfer Taylor Emery. After starting her career at Tulane University, 5’10” junior guard averaged 19.0 points and 3.9 rebounds at Gulf Coast State College last year. Emery led Gulf Coast State to a national title and was named the 2017 Spalding NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Player of the Year. Through the first two games of the season, Emery is averaging 20.0 points and 4.5 rebounds.
“She’s a spark for us,” Brooks said. “She can shoot it from the outside, she can put the ball on the floor. She’s aggressive and she’s experienced. Someone coming in to replace Vanessa Panousis and Sammy Hill, you need them to have experience. She’s playing well right now for us. The most exciting thing for us about her is that she doesn’t have to do it all. She can just provide a little punch for us. We don’t have to rely on her every night to get 20. It’d be great, but we have other weapons that can step up and score the basketball as well.”
Another one of Virginia Tech’s biggest weapons is Chanette Hicks. The junior point guard averaged 16.1 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.6 steals last season, leading the ACC in the latter category. Brooks, a point guard himself back in his playing days at James Madison, has been working extensively with Hicks to help her develop into a complete point guard.
“With her being on the Nancy Lieberman watch list for the best point guard in the country, it’s the fourth time in my career that’s happened,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the things I take pride in. I want to make sure that she’s seeing some of the things that I see. That’s where I’ve had past success with my point guards. She’s probably the most athletic of all of them that I’ve ever had. What she’s really become that helps make her a great point guard is she’s a great leader. Last year at times she might be a little volatile. Now, she’s more receptive to coaching, to criticism and she’s done a much better job of keeping her cool. She’s doing a tremendous job and I’m really proud of her. I’m looking forward to her continued growth.”
In a preseason poll, Virginia Tech was predicted to finish 11th in the ACC. The Hokies are eager to prove the critics wrong and show that they can put last year’s performance in the ACC behind them.
“I’m a competitor,” Brooks said. “We didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year, but we still made a postseason [tournament] and they were able to extend the seniors’ careers. The group I have right now, I think we have the capabilities of being one of the best teams in the country. Whether it’s top 25 or top 50, I think we’re an NCAA Tournament caliber team. We think we have the pieces to go out and compete. Whether or not we can get over the hump remains to be seen. The sky’s the limit. I don’t think we’re going to try to measure it with wins and losses, but we’re just going to try to go out and get better every day.”
Virginia Tech will look to keep the early season success going when they host USC Upstate on Friday at 9 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum.