It's late January 2023, a year ago. After three solid conference wins against Louisville, Pitt and Wake Forest, the #12 Virginia Tech women's basketball team heads south to face #16 Duke. Center Elizabeth Kitley goes into the game as ACC's player of the week after posting a season-high 28 points against Wake. Point guard Georgia Amoore sunk five threes that same game, and Taylor Soule celebrated double digits as well. But back to that Duke game ... the Hokies lose.
Thankfully, it would be their last loss for quite a while, including a sweet 61-45 homecourt revenge against Duke, a buzzer-beater win against North Carolina, and a fast ride into ACC Tournament territory, beating Louisville for the championship trophy, an historical program first. Come early March, headlines announced the Lady Hokies landed the #1 seed in "The Big Dance." Another program first.
But ... this is not a sports article. It's a love story, between a coach and a team and a team and a town.
Somewhere in all the records, recognitions, rebounds and titles, we started paying attention. And like someone with a palpitating teenage crush, we couldn't wait to see them again.
"Little by little we would see the crowds grow. More and more people wanted to get a piece of us to see what this Virginia Tech team was all about. Then we continued to win and win, and we were winning in a fashion that was very entertaining. It's a really exciting, really fun brand of basketball," head coach Kenny Brooks says of early 2023, when the regular-season energy started to shift to something bigger.
Guard Cayla King adds: "We lost to Duke the first time, but the second time we tromped them. The in-team energy changed, then the crowd grew."
The Town of Blacksburg and outlying fans were suddenly fully engaged and invested. Not only were we paying attention, but we were hosting watch parties, referencing players on a first-name basis, and recalling specific plays around the company coffee station. We were giddy for a chance selfie.
"When we got to the NCAA tournament, we started to cross paths with ESPN TV personalities. I remember they asked: 'What are you most excited about?'. My response: 'Now the whole world gets to see who we are'," Brooks recalls. "And I was excited because of the grace we play with. Everyone would see their personalities and who they are as people. I think Hokie Nation and lots of people across the country have gotten to know them, so they became human."
Point guard Georgia Amoore recalls: "It was great when we came home [from the ACC Championship], pulling into Hahn and all the people so happy and celebrating us because we came home on a win. But even after the Final Four when we came home on a loss, we still felt like we won something because of the support. The turnout was unreal."
"We are a family," Brooks states. "It doesn't matter what your role is, you have a responsibility in this program to treat it like a family. I have a relationship with each and every one, I know their families and their pets. The kids really are conditioned, because they're so close, to celebrate each other's successes."
Amoore emphasizes the importance of pushing confidence, both in yourself and your teammates. Good days, bad days, wins and losses come and go, but if the one constant is your teammates, life is a lot easier.
"One thing I hear people say is they can see our chemistry on the court, especially through the tournament run last year,” King offers. “It was about more than just basketball, we care deeply for each other. And when you have it off the court, it's easy to have it on the court."
Then it was summer break and we followed the team on social media, anxious for that small-town fandom turned big-time stardom to come back for the '23-24 season.
"Last year was very special. We were 31-5. And this year is not a failure if we go 30-6. It shows you how special last year was, and this year will be this year," Brooks shares.
According to King, there are many new people. “We're seeing them get comfortable. I think we can go back to where we were last year but it's not going to happen overnight. I'm excited for the new ones to feel like they're flowing in our system."
Maybe it's because they don't just belong to Virginia Tech, they belong to Blacksburg. They belong to every little girl who sits in the stands with an orange and maroon pom-pom, cheering for a chance on the jumbotron. They belong to middle and high school basketball players settling into their potential. They belong to downtown Joe's Diner, to Claytor Lake, to the UCB Kroger, to Christiansburg's Target.
"Our team has that sincere care for the community. We value relationships. You can bring people to games if they have some connection, and they feel like you care about them just as much as they care about you," Amoore relates of life in the New River Valley.
For coaches everywhere, it's difficult. When asked to recall a certain team, a year, a record, it's nearly impossible. The teams and seasons bleed together to become one long, tenured career. "But when someone asks me about 'that team you had in '23'," Brooks concludes, "I'll remember every little detail because I allowed myself to enjoy what was going on, to 'stop and smell the roses' and appreciate every step of the journey."
We're sure to remember this one, too, because the journey started here, in our town. And - as the saying goes - we are grateful to have loved at all.
Nancy S. Moseley is Blacksburg-based writer. To say she was starstruck during interviews is a gross understatement. Who needs the magic of Hollywood when you have the magic of collegiate sports in Blacksburg?