For Sam Brunelle and her teammates, it’s about the bigger picture.
“Even though we didn’t win a championship, we did win something, and that was each other as a team and our love for each other,” Brunelle said in the wake of William Monroe girls basketball’s 77-62 state semifinal loss to Hopewell that ended the Dragons’ season. “That’s something special that no other team in the state has.”
They won each other. They won an awful lot of games too, ending the year with a 22-3 record, but winning each other seemed to matter much more to the Dragons.
“Their goal was not to get to a state championship, their goal was to stay together and now we don’t get to do that anymore,” said Monroe coach Jess Stafford. “When you love each other like that, you win. It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says. They had an amazing experience”
The loss ended perhaps the most decorated, accomplished basketball career in local history, with the 2017-2018 Gatorade Virginia Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American Brunelle wrapping up her four years with a 25-point, 21-rebound, four-block performance that made her the program’s all-time rebound leader. She pulled that off while still not fully back up to speed after the foot injury in December that cost her a big chunk of her senior season.
“She wanted it,” Stafford said. “It reminds me of last year when we lost but she scored her 2,000th point, there’s a silver lining in there, something to celebrate as well as an amazing run. There’s no replacing her. There’s no replacing her athletically, there’s no replacing her leadership, we are going to have to fill a hole that’s unfillable.”
The loss played out in some ways like a repeat of last year’s state quarterfinal, with Hopewell pushing the pace, trapping and forcing the Dragons into a rash of turnovers. At first, it appeared the Dragons were ready to handle that pressure.Hopewell certainly thought so.
“This game I thought we’re going to do what we do and speeding them up made a huge difference,” said Hopewell coach Jackie Edmonds. “The first quarter, they kept up with it but I told the girls, they’re doing a great job but they can’t play like that the entire game. We can because that’s what we’ve been doing all year.”
In the second quarter, things got away from the Dragons and Hopewell led 40-28 at the half. Monroe refused to roll over and go quietly, and in the fourth quarter, cut the lead to 58-53. But that was as close as they’d get as Hopewell didn’t let them even enjoy that margin for a few seconds, reeling off six-straight points to pull out to a 64-53 lead with 2:50 to play. The Blue Devils kept Monroe at arm’s length from there.
“We have six seniors on this team, it was very emotional for us,” Edmonds said. “We knew this is what we wanted to do, this is very special being able to do it again.”
Tyjana Simmons led the Blue Devils with 23 points, including going 9-for-11 at the line while Messiah Hunter scored 21 and went 7-for-8 at the charity stripe. Courtney Scott rounded out the bulk of Hopewell’s incredible free throw shooting with a 9-for-12 night while scoring 13 points. Zykerriah Brooks rounded out the all-out offensive assault with 12 points, 11 of which came in the first half.
The Dragons countered with a big performance by Iyanna Carey who had 16 points, 11 points from Bryonna Woofter and 10 from Martha Apple. Despite that output, Monroe just couldn’t dig completely out of the hole they’d dug in the second quarter.
Hopewell will now get a shot at the state title that they fell short of a year ago against Lord Botetourt, this time against Spotswood. And they got it done against a team, and a player, that they respect after two battles in the last two years.
“Sam is dear to my heart, Sam and I my daughter (Imani Edmonds) have been playing AAU since Sam was in the fourth grade and Imani was in the fifth,” Edmonds said. “Sam is a great player and she’s a great individual, that’s the thing I like most is that she’s just a great individual.”
It’s the end of an era for the Dragons and for Brunelle who moves on to Notre Dame next fall.
“I’ve been in Greene my whole life, and to me home is where the heart is,” Brunelle said. “This program means a lot. The girls are amazing and coach Stafford is one of the greatest coaches I could ever have.”