By Ryan Yemen, Drew Goodman, Luke Nadkarni and Bart Isley
William Monroe’s Sam Brunelle has never shied away from using her platform to make a difference or be a force for positivity. She’s raised money for flood victims in Houston through a basketball clinic and she’s made time for nearly any kid across Central Virginia who has asked for an autograph or a selfie over the last four years.
That’s why it comes as little surprise that she took one of her biggest personal moments to build awareness for a much smaller human’s struggle.
While signing with Notre Dame Wednesday and making official a verbal pledge she made in April, Brunelle signed her letter with her left hand, drawing attention to Charlottesville-based basketball trainer and St. Anne’s-Belfield head coach Damin Altizer’s toddler daughter Katie, who has cerebral palsy and is undergoing constraint-induced therapy to improve her use of her left hand. Altizer, who has worked extensively with Brunelle, posted on social media earlier this week about he and his wife Kelly’s commitment to using their non-dominant hand in solidarity with Katie’s therapy. Brunelle joined the Altizers’ support with her signing.
“She hasn’t had use of her left hand, so in honor of her I’m signing with my left hand today,” Brunelle announced to the crowd that had gathered to support one of Greene County’s favorite native daughters. “In hopes that we can spread awareness for her and help her get better.”
With that movement of the pen with her left hand, Brunelle completed a process that, because of Brunelle’s talent and her pairing it with a relentless work ethic, felt like destiny since before she set foot on a high school court, inking a full scholarship with a top notch academic university and women’s basketball program in Notre Dame, the reigning national champions.
“I’m excited to get after it and hopefully get a national championship,” Brunelle said.
Brunelle, the reigning state Class 3 and Gatorade Virginia player of the year, begins her senior campaign this month after averaging 30.0 points and 16.0 rebounds per game as a junior and pushing the Dragons to the state tournament for the first time since the 1980s.
“I don’t think it’s quite hit me that hard yet that this is actually my last year,” Brunelle said. “I’m just going to be grateful for the time I’ve had here.”
She’ll head to Notre Dame as perhaps the most decorated high school player male or female in Central Virginia history. But right now, she’s focused on helping the Dragons complete their team goals.
“I’m so excited that I’m officially (going to Notre Dame),” Brunelle said. “Moving forward I’m just focused on my senior season and enjoying the ride while it lasts.”
Blue Ridge’s Frazier headed to Chattanooga
Jaden Frazier just needed some time to figure it out.
“In four years at Blue Ridge that’s been the key — confidence,” Frazier said.
The Blue Ridge senior is quintessential late bloomer, a 6-foot-9 post player who had a breakout summer on the club circuit both because he’d put in the work and because he decided to embrace who he is as a basketball player.
“The biggest thing was to focus on my strengths, focus on the things I’m good at,” Frazier said. “I stayed true to me.”
That process took another step forward when he signed Wednesday with the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, picking the Moccasins over schools like Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Wofford. The Pulaski native joins a program looking to make some moves under second-year head coach Lamont Paris, a former Wisconsin assistant. Paris is working to create a winning culture in Chattanooga, and Frazier is no stranger to being a part of that, having been a part of a state title squad two years ago at Blue Ridge and last year’s state finalist run.
Frazier averaged 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds as a junior and has also gotten a chance to sharpen his game every day in practice or offseason workouts against players like Clemson’s Aamir Sims and UVa’s Mamadi Diakite over the past three years in St. George.
“All those guys have helped me be where I want to be,” Frazier said.
Now he starts his final campaign with the Barons, who have to replace Darius McGhee and Sardaar Calhoun from last year’s state finalist squad. If Frazier’s summer is any indication, he should be a force for the Barons in his final year.
Monroe’s Ford bound for James Madison
Jessica Ford is joining a big-time softball program.
But for the William Monroe senior, it wasn’t so much about wins, though they didn’t hurt. It was about feel at James Madison.
“The campus, the coaches and the girls on the team made it feel like home,” Ford said. “It’s my home away from home.”
Ford, an All-Northwestern District shortstop, signed with the Dukes Wednesday. She’ll join a hard-hitting squad that led the nation in home runs per game and qualified for the NCAA Tournament where they won their first regional game before falling to host Tennessee in the Knoxville regional.
“I can’t wait to be there playing for them,” Ford said.
Ford has some experience as part of a hard-hitting lineup as William Monroe made life tough on opposing teams the last couple of years in the batter’s box. The Dragons should be in solid shape with a roster that’s back largely in tact.
“Our pitching staff is all younger and they’re just getting better and better,” Ford said. “This year I think we have another good run in us.”
Trio of Miller baseball players headed to Virginia schools
Three Miller School baseball players signed with three different Virginia universities in front of a crowd in the school’s gym Wednesday afternoon ahead of the Mavericks’ pursuit of its third straight state championship.
Jack Masloff followed former Mavericks state champion pitcher Connor Gillispie to VCU, while Nate Burton will head to Mary Washington and Matt Sykes inked with George Mason.
Sykes, a Northern Virginia native, is excited to return to his hometown to continue his career, where it will allow those who are close to him to watch him play.
“I’m really familiar with the area, and I have family in Arlington and Southern Maryland,” Sykes said. “It’ll be great to be close to them. Great campus, great school.”
Burton, who is capable of playing several different positions, including pitcher and catcher, will be the lone Maverick on the Mary Washington roster when he joins the Eagles next season.
Masloff enters his first season with the Mavericks and looks forward to continuing the traditional pipeline of Miller players to VCU, the most recent being Gillespie and Mike Dailey.
“It was definitely nice to join Connor and Mike there,” Masloff said. “They’re both pitchers too, so it’ll be nice to have them guide me through the college process. I’m excited to continue my career and play at the next level.”
All three players also pointed to the coaching staffs at each school as reasons why they made their choices.
“[Mason’s] interest in me was genuine,” Sykes said. “As far as baseball goes, I couldn’t ask for better coaches. I think they can really help me become the player I want to be.”
Mavericks head coach Billy Wagner, himself a former college player in Virginia at Ferrum before his Major League Baseball career, took great pride in the fact that another group of his players will be representing Miller School at the next level.
“It’s fun for me because it’s really about the kids, and they want to have the opportunity to play at the next level,” Wagner said. “As a coach, the reward is not the wins, it’s when these kids go on to be good people and also excel in baseball.”
Unlike some other sports, these players will get to play their final season without the added stress of the recruiting process.
“It’s definitely nice to have the stress off my back,” Sykes said. “Going forward this season, it’s nice to be able to focus on winning.”
Added Burton: “I’m just looking forward to trying to get a third ring and enjoy the season with old teammates and new teammates.”
Fluco duo inks their deals
The Walker family has lived, eaten and breathed Fluvanna volleyball for a long, long time. Now for the second time in seven years, the transition begins — making the jump from Fluco to collegiate athlete.
Some shadows aren’t easy to step out of but Christina Walker has managed just that.
While grew up watching her older sister Kayla play, between her time at Fluvanna back at the old high school in the shoe box as well as at Shepherd University, the younger Walker embraced volleyball and created a name for herself, both on the club circuit playing for CAV volleyball as well as at Fluvanna County.
“Kayla was a big crazy hitter, just an amazing player” Christina said. “She was a big part of my inspiration.”
Now thanks to her four year career that saw her become a first team All-Jefferson District selection and first team All-Region 3C honoree, she’s moving on to play at George Mason University.
“I knew that was the fit that God had for me,” Walker said. “It had all the right academic programs and the volleyball team just treated me like I was already part of the family so it had all the right things going for it.”
An honor roll student with more than fistful of extra curriculars, Walker considered a handful of Division II and III schools along the way between Mary Washington and UVA Wise but settled on George Mason to play at the Divison I level after visiting Fairfax this past April.
After Walker signed her deal with GMU, the spot light shifted to Jacob Critzer. The Fluvanna baseball standout is headed to Lincoln Memorial University, a Division II program located in North Eastern Tennessee in Harrogate.
“It was kind of like the atmosphere around here, a country style school,” Crizter said. “I figured I’d fit there for the next four years.”
Critzer was a first team All-Jefferson District and All-Region 3C selection as a junior and the Railsplitters plan to use him as a corner infielder, catcher and designated hitter in the spring of 2020. Of course, that’s a bit away. Critzer and his teammates still have their season ahead of them and are coming of a Class 3A final four showing, the first ever in program history after their Region 3C championship win over Western and state quarterfinal victory over Northside. With almost the entire roster back, thoughts of collegiate baseball were on Critzer’s mind this Tuesday but getting the gang back together and trying to make a state title run is on the front burner now.
“Watching this grow over the past four seasons has just been amazing,” Critzer said. “(We’re) seeing this all come together with everyone working hard trying to win games… We just want win states this year, that’s all we’ve been thinking about.”