After stops at Louisville and Georgia, Taja Cole decided to return to her home state for her final year playing collegiate basketball. Cole joined Virginia Tech this year and immediately took over as a force on both ends of the floor, and led the team to its best season under head coach Kenny Brooks.
“I was glad that I could come back to what I think is the best school in Virginia and do as much damage as we did as a team,” Cole said. “Nobody really knew each other because we were all new players, so to come in as the point guard and have them trust in me to lead the team helped it all come together so we could do something special.”
The Hokies won 11 games in the ACC behind Cole’s leadership at the point guard position. Since joining the conference, the most Tech had won was six ACC games in any season before 2019-20. Cole was fifth in the country in assists and led the conference while also leading the Hokies in steals on the defensive end of the floor. Her contributions were vital in taking the program to the next level this season.
The relationship between Cole and Brooks was a large reason why this team had so much success. Cole says that she’s known Coach Brooks since she was in middle school and their connection was evident on the court. As an experienced player, Cole was able to act as an extension of Brooks on the court. Having her set the tone on both ends of the court was exactly what Brooks needed in his system.
“I think our bond got a lot closer this year and he’s like a dad to me,” Cole said. “I think that also helped with the chemistry and getting the wins this year, the bond that me and him had.”
The Hokies were expected to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, but the coronavirus outbreak ended that dream before their name was called during the Selection Show. Cole’s teams had reached the NCAA Tournament during her tenures at Louisville and Georgia, but she was looking to finish off her college career with a storybook run in March.
“I was devastated, and I didn’t understand it; I was looking at it from a basketball mindset instead of something being a world crisis,” Cole said. “I had my week or so of just being down and wondering why this had to happen with all of the hard work that me and my teammates put in. To have this happen to such a special group, I was heartbroken by it.”
Cole and fellow graduate transfer Lydia Rivers were the only two Hokies to reach the NCAA Tournament in their careers. The two veterans on the team knew what to expect, and they were also preparing their younger teammates for what March Madness can bring.
“The NCAA Tournament is at a different level, it’s like the NBA Finals,” Cole said. “Lebron [James] plays a different way during the season, but when the Finals come and it’s crunch time, you give it your all. I explained to the team that it would be the little things that would take us far, and the team that wins is going to be the team that makes the least mistakes.”
That young team has gotten even younger early this offseason. Cole and Rivers, both starters, are moving on from college basketball after their lone season in Blacksburg. Another starter, Dara Mabrey, and the ACC Sixth Player of the Year, Trinity Baptiste, have both entered the transfer portal recently.
Tech is returning only four players who received significant minutes last year. The top two scorers on the team, Aisha Sheppard and Elizabeth Kitley, will both be back and should be the top two options offensively. Off of the bench, Cayla King and Alex Obouh Fegue both return and should see an increased role next year.
It will be a very different team this season with many new faces joining Brooks’ squad. University of Southern California transfer Asiah Jones will be eligible and healthy after sitting out last season. The 6’3” forward appeared in 55 games with the Trojans over two seasons. Point guard Da’Ja Green also joins the Hokies as a graduate transfer from Wofford. Green brings a veteran presence to the backcourt after making the All-SoCon Second Team in three straight seasons.
Adding to those more experienced additions, Coach Brooks has brought in another talented recruiting class that should be able to contribute immediately.
“Virginia Tech has been so successful because they don’t just recruit talent, they recruit good people,” Cole said. “Those kids coming in are going to be really talented, and I think they’re going to come in and pick up the pieces that we lost.”
The highlight of the recruiting class seems to be Australian point guard Georgia Amoore. Brooks has raved about the abilities of Amoore and what she can bring to the team. She was able to practice with the Hokies during this past season and has already gained experience in Brooks’ system. Cole’s contributions show that this system works better with a natural point guard in the back court. Amoore could fill the large shoes that Cole is leaving.
“Georgia came in and it felt like she was there all year and she was a part of the team; she has that personality where it doesn’t matter where she goes, she feels comfortable,” Cole said. “I think she’s tough and she’s going to be able to lead this team. She’s young and she’s still learning, but I always made her stand beside me in practice, and I wanted her to learn all of the plays as much as possible now.”
After her best season yet, Cole looks to continue her career on the court. With the WNBA Draft approaching on Friday night, she hopes to hear her name called. However, there are other options for her if she goes undrafted.
“Everything is going to handle itself, but I do want to keep playing basketball; my dream has always been to play professionally,” Cole said. “I hope my name gets called, but if not, then hopefully I’ll get an invite to training camp or overseas or things like that. I let God do his work and I just do my work to work hard and continue to be the person that I am.”
No matter where Taja Cole goes after leaving Blacksburg, she will have made a mark on the program and the town. Coach Brooks’ program is different from when she arrived on campus last year and looks to continue its success long after she moves on.
“I think we’re going to continue rising because we set the foundation for what Virginia Tech Women’s Basketball is going to be for the next decade,” Cole said. “We laid out the foundation of a really tight-knit close family and the next generation that comes up has to step up and follow suit or you leave like the ones that did leave.”