The reality of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has snapped everyone in the sports world into a different reality, and Virginia Tech women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks certainly ranks as no exception.
But after the NCAA recently cancelled all winter and spring sports championships, including the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, Brooks spent the better part of three days lying in bed, trying to overcome the secondary effects of the virus: the emotional ones of knowing that his team wasn’t going to end the Hokies’ 14-year drought and play in a tournament game for the first time since 2006.
“Heartbreak, I’m not going to lie,” Brooks admitted in a news teleconference. “I honestly stayed in bed for about three days. I’m watching TV show after TV show and not really comprehending what just happened because this is probably the most special group I’ve had in all my years as a head coach. For them to work toward a goal and really achieve it with everything other than getting the grade back – you went in, you aced the test, you know you did a great job and the teacher graded it and never gave it back to you, so that you have validation for it. It’s a very hard pill for me to swallow because we had worked so hard.”
Brooks learned the news of the cancellation from his home. He and his staff then told the players over a group text because most of them were at home for spring break. The reaction was what one might expect: disappointment, sadness, even anger.
Brooks and his staff remain in constant communication with the players, requiring them to check in with him daily. The majority of the team is at home. Four players are not, including a pair who live outside the country. Brooks added that all of them, like most of society, want to get back to normalcy.
“They’ve never had to be quarantined or just told they can’t go places,” he said. “I’m checking in on them daily. Georgia Amoore is with Liz Kitley, and they sent me a text with a picture and said, ‘We miss you.’ This group is so close. They probably have withdrawal from not being around each other more than anything. I know they have group texts and talk, and they’re constantly Facetiming each other.
“But honestly, the longer this thing goes on, the more information that gets out there, they’re understanding more and more the seriousness of the situation, and I think they’re understanding that they have to do their part. They have a duty to make sure that they don’t bring it to their loved ones.”
Brooks cannot help but feel a stinging disappointment for his players, who put together an outstanding 2019-20 campaign. Tech enjoyed arguably the school’s best season in nearly 15 years.
The Hokies went 21-9, their fourth consecutive 20-win season under Brooks. Their 11 ACC wins marked a program best. They finished tied for fourth place in the league standings, also a program best.
Individually, Aisha Sheppard earned first-team All-ACC honors, Elizabeth Kitley was the league’s Freshman of the Year, and Trinity Baptiste was the league’s Sixth Player of the Year. Taja Cole made the All-Defensive Team, and she finished fourth in the nation in assists per game (6.5). Brooks himself moved into fourth place for wins by a Tech women’s basketball coach in just his fourth season.
Cole, a graduate transfer from Georgia, probably was the catalyst for the Hokies this season, giving them a stabilizing presence at point guard and a team leader. The Richmond native and Brooks hold a special relationship from her days of going to his camps at James Madison.
Brooks said that the hardest part of the current situation was seeing the seniors – Cole, Lydia Rivers, and his daughter, Kendyl – depart without getting to hear their names called as one of the teams to make the NCAA Tournament.
“For me, I’ve done it, I’ve been there, I’ve had my name called before,” Brooks said. “I have years left and hopefully I’ll have an opportunity for it to happen again, but to watch Taj Cole, Lydia Rivers and Kendyl not be able to achieve that anymore, it’s just heartbreaking.
“Last April, Taj came in here and we talked about what we wanted to accomplish and obviously you put together a wish list, and pretty much everything we checked off. She wanted to get this program to new heights. She wanted to take it to the tournament where it hasn’t been in a very long time. Lydia wanted the opportunity to do the same thing and play at a higher level,” the head coach said.
“For those two kids to come here and elevate this program the way that they did, you just wanted it for them. You wanted it for them because they had worked so hard and did so many wonderful things for our program,” Brook said. “It was definitely disappointing because they deserved to really enjoy hearing their name called and hearing Hokie Nation follow them and support them in the NCAA Tournament. But the bigger picture, when it’s all said and done, those two kids and I’ll include Kendyl in there, they will understand that they’ve helped lay the foundation for our program for years to come.”
On the positive side, the Hokies do return a strong nucleus for next season. Sheppard, Kitley, and Baptiste all return, and Tech gets the services of Asiah Jones, who transferred last year from Southern Cal and sat out this past season. Dara Mabrey elected to enter the transfer portal, but Tech’s staff hopes to be able to absorb that loss with four signees who inked with Tech in November, including Amoore, whom Brooks really likes.
“We feel like we’re going to be extremely gifted next year, probably even better than we were this year,” Brooks said. “Georgia Amoore is probably my ideal type point guard. She’s fast, she can shoot it, she can defend, she can do a lot of different things. She can be a tremendous player for us.
Brooks said. “We have Asiah Jones, who was sitting out this year and is the most athletic player I’ve had as a head coach. She’s going to be able to step in and give us athleticism down low. We have a tremendous group of freshmen coming in, and we’re going to be able to plug in. We feel like we’re very, very strong. I’m excited. I’m more excited about what we can be because I think we’ll be even stronger next year.”
Brooks, his staff and his players continue to wait, looking forward to an announcement as to when preparations for the 2020-21 season can begin.
“We’re all very anxious in these times, and in my role as a head coach, I’m just trying to keep everyone informed and make sure the kids are doing well,” Brooks said. “It’s been crazy. We had the end to a season that probably has been one of the best we’ve had here. It might be the most enjoyable season I’ve ever had with a group of kids, but I’ll be able to tell my grandkids in the years to come that we overcame this. We’re just trying to get through this and hoping and praying.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics