This is the first part of a two-part interview with Virginia Tech women’s basketball head coach Kenny Brooks. Today’s piece will focus on the 2017-18 season, and the Hokies’ second-place finish in the WNIT.
The 2017-18 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Kenny Brooks and Virginia Tech women’s basketball, at least on paper.
The Hokies entered the season missing three starters, with Vanessa Panousis, Samantha Hill and Sidney Cook all exhausting their college eligibility. Virginia Tech did return starters Chanette Hicks and Regan Magarity, but the team was going to be young and inexperienced.
There was reason for hope. Virginia Tech added a talented freshman in Aisha Sheppard, and two highly-regarded JUCO players in Taylor Emery and Alexis Jean. Emery was named Spalding’s NJCCA Player of the Year for the 2016-17 season, while Jean averaged 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds that season. Kendyl Brooks was entering her second season, and Rachel Camp was finally healthy and cleared to play.
“I thought the possibilities were there,” Brooks said. “I felt like we were going to be as talented. I was hoping more, just because of our depth, than the year previous. But there was a caveat. I knew that a lot of things had to happen in our favor. I knew a lot of people had to produce to a level that we expected, and that was an unknown, because you’re replacing the valuable experience of Vanessa (Panousis), Sidney (Cook) and Sammi (Hill).”
Fortunately for Brooks and Co., Virginia Tech successfully replaced their veteran leadership and made another late-season run in the WNIT, falling in the championship game to Indiana.
But the story isn’t that simple. Virginia Tech dealt with injuries, a tough ACC schedule and personal issues, all of which threatened to sink the Hokies’ season. But Tech overcame all those things.
The maturation process started early in the season, as the Hokies were working out the kinks and getting used to one another. Brooks was trying to figure out who he had and who he could count on, while trying to push Emery into a leadership role.
“I don’t think she was very comfortable with it, especially early on,” Brooks said. “I still don’t think she’s 100 percent comfortable with it, but she’s understanding the importance of it now and she understands that she works as hard, if not harder than anyone, people want to follow that but they also want to hear what you have to say. If they trust you, and they know you’re going to work as hard as anyone, they’ll listen to you.”
Brooks knew Emery had the ability to lead by example, and as she blossomed throughout the season, she took on the leadership role that he had hoped she would. Emery finished the season as Virginia Tech’s leading and most efficient scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game and shooting 49.1 percent from the floor.
As important as Emery was to this season’s Hokies, Rachel Camp and Regan Magarity might have been more important.
But to explain Camp and Magarity’s importance, we must examine Chanette Hicks. The junior guard had been starting since her freshman season and had become a mainstay in the Hokies’ lineup since. However, midway through the season, Hicks was removed from the starting lineup. Hicks came off the bench for the next seven games, and then left the team for personal reasons.
Hicks’ removal from the lineup and indefinite departure from the team forced the Hokies to completely reinvent themselves. Tech needed to find a new point guard, and they needed to change their offense. Enter Camp.
Camp has had an up-and-down career at Virginia Tech. She started 28 games for Virginia Tech as a freshman, started just three games as a sophomore, and sat out all of 2016-17 due to injury. Camp had always been a wing player for the Hokies, but was now Virginia Tech’s starting point guard. Regan Magarity would help with the point guard duties, but Camp was the primary ball handler.
“If you had asked me in December or November, ‘If Rachel has to play point guard for you for 40 minutes, how do you think you guys will be,’ I would say we probably wouldn’t be very good,” Brooks said. “A lot of it had to do with that I didn’t know Rachel Camp as a player. She sat out all last year, didn’t even practice with us. She struggled early to fit into our system partly because I didn’t know what position she was.”
Brooks said that Camp and Magarity fully embraced the reinvention, even though it was highly unconventional. Their reaction to the move gave Brooks hope that the move would work.
“They didn’t look at me and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do that.’ They were just like, ‘What do you need me to do?’ I told Regan she was going to be my ‘point center,’ and her face lit up. When I told Rachel she was going to have to move over and play point, she said, ‘Ok, can you teach me some things?’ So right then and there, I knew we were going to be okay, as far as their effort. But give those kids credit for how much they grew and how far they took us,” Brooks said.
The move worked. Despite being just seven-deep on the bench, including an injured Kendyl Brooks, Virginia Tech went through some growing pains after the move, but entered the ACC Tournament feeling confident. The Hokies knocked off Syracuse in the first round and fell to No. 5 Louisville in the second round 73-70.
“Every game we went out, Rachel got better. Every game we went out, our comradery got better. The team chemistry was so much better,” Brooks said. “You could really see them playing for each other, and I think that is very important to our development as a program, that they are willing to fight and sacrifice for each other. I had so many coaches come up to me and say, ‘You guys are so much better. You guys look like they play hard and play for each other.”
Despite playing well in the ACC Tournament, Virginia Tech fell short of the NCAA Tournament. The Hokies were headed for their second-straight WNIT, but the goal for this appearance was different than the year prior.
“I thought the first year was very important for us to establish our credibility as a program, continuing to go to the postseason. I thought it was an opportunity for us to extend the careers of kids who did so many very wonderful things for me and this program,” Brooks said. “Every game we won, I felt like it was an opportunity for them to extend their career, more so than what we were able to build on. This year’s team I thought was totally different, because we weren’t extending the careers — everyone was coming back — so it was a different mantra.”
Virginia Tech took full advantage of the WNIT, winning five-straight games and earning a spot in the WNIT final vs. Indiana. In that five-game stretch, Emery led the Hokies by averaging 19.2 points per game, while Camp averaged 12.6 points and four assists per game. Each team that Virginia Tech knocked off in the WNIT won at least 20 games, including Alabama and West Virginia, who won 20 and 25 games respectively.
Virginia Tech’s run in the WNIT came to an end in Bloomington, as the Hokies blew a fourth-quarter lead to Indiana. The Hoosiers won 65-57 in front of a crowd of 13,000-plus fans, easily the biggest crowd Virginia Tech played in front of all season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt my heart beat. Like, it was coming out of my shirt,” Brooks said. “We’ve played at Notre Dame and we’ve played at Louisville, but nothing compares to that atmosphere that we played in. I thought the kids handled it well.”
Despite falling just short of the WNIT title, Brooks couldn’t be prouder of the Hokies’ run. Not only did Virginia Tech do it with just seven players in the rotation, including the injured Kendyl Brooks, but they did it by running an odd lineup with players playing against their strengths.
“I think it’s more impressive because we did it unconventionally,” Brooks said. “We didn’t have a point guard that had been playing point guard all their life, all year. We didn’t have the same lineup. We had to mix and match, move it, do everything. For them to still be able to persevere through all of that makes the run that more special.”
Virginia Tech now embarks on an important offseason. The Hokies return all five starters from the end of last season and will add valuable pieces as well. How does Brooks feel about the Hokies’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19? We’ll address all of that and more in Part II, which will publish on Thursday.