The coronavirus outbreak has had severe implications on collegiate athletics, stopping all competition and practice for the foreseeable future. In Blacksburg, one of the more crushing blows from the pandemic was the cancellation of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
“It’s been a crazy week-and-a-half and an end to a season that we felt was the best that we’ve had here, and probably the most enjoyable season that I’ve had with a group of kids,” said Kenny Brooks, head coach. “We’re just trying to get through it and hoping and praying.”
The Hokies were a virtual lock to hear their name called during the selection show, despite dropping their only ACC Tournament game to Wake Forest. Brooks had not reached the NCAA Tournament during his time at Virginia Tech. Now, that milestone will have to wait until at least next year.
“That’s been our goal all year long and we’ve worked towards that,” Brooks said. “People didn’t believe that we could achieve it and we knew we could. To have it right on your fingertips and have it taken away was obviously very disappointing.”
Most players on the team will have another chance to reach the tournament in future seasons. However, the three seniors on the roster will end their college career on a sour note. Graduate transfers Taja Cole and Lydia Rivers started for most of the season and were key contributors during their one season in Blacksburg.
On the other hand, senior Kendyl Brooks, the oldest daughter of Coach Brooks, had already lost her senior season due to injury and won’t get to experience her first and only NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Kendyl had to come to terms with the fact that her senior year was taken away from her, and that was a lot of heartbreak because I felt she was in a situation where she could have shined,” Brooks said. “To get that news was devastating, but she handled it much better than I could have.”
Along with the three graduating players, sophomore Dara Mabrey will also not be returning to the program. She announced via social media that she has entered the transfer portal and plans to move on from Virginia Tech. Despite being a starter who averaged double-digit points per game, neither side was happy with the relationship for most of the season.
“There was no conversation about it, she sent me a text, but I guess that’s how kids today will communicate,” Brooks said. “I knew that there was a strong possibility that it would happen; I knew she was not happy with her role being taken off of the ball. We weren’t able to have a sit-down face-to-face, but if we did, then the situation would have been mutual.”
Mabrey and Cole leaving the program creates a large hole in the backcourt with no true point guard returning next year. That gap will have to be filled from another talented recruiting class coming to Blacksburg next year, starting with Australian star Georgia Amoore. She has been practicing with the team this semester and looks to play a large role in her first year on campus.
“I can’t speak enough on Georgia Amoore and what kind of player I think she’s going to be,” Brooks said. “Taja has left some big shoes to fill, but she’ll be the first one to tell you that things are OK because Georgia is going to be really, really good.”
The two returning starters for the Hokies will have to carry a large load heading into next season. Freshman Elizabeth Kitley had a breakout year, being named ACC Freshman of the Year. She looks to continue her success down low and give the Hokies a legitimate post presence for years to come.
The most important returner for Tech could be junior Aisha Sheppard. After leading the team in scoring this season, she’ll be looking to take over and be the Hokies’ true first option on offense. With Mabrey transferring, Sheppard will be able to move up to shooting guard instead of playing small forward like she did this year. With everything coming together, Sheppard could be in for a huge senior season.
“I thought she made tremendous strides to fill in for the role that Taylor Emery vacated, and she did a really good job of learning,” Brooks said. “This year was more of a trial year, and she exceeded my expectations, so now we can be more forward-thinking of what we need to do for her senior year.”
Although the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament was taken from the Hokies’ this year, the progress made by Tech this year shows that there is a bright future ahead for the program. After adding five conference wins from a season ago and bringing in another talented recruiting class, women’s basketball in Blacksburg is looking up.
“I’m very excited and focusing on what we have going forward,” Brooks said. “I don’t say this to be light with it, but I think that we have the possibility to be even stronger next year.”