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An Unlikely Homecoming: Sam Brunelle Comes Home to Virginia

Unexpected challenges led Virginia native Sam Brunelle to the opportunity to make her dream come true, helping to lead the turnaround of the UVA women's basketball program

In 2018, the powerhouses of women's college basketball turned their attention to Central Virginia, where one player at William Monroe High School had the attention of the entire country. At the time, Sam Brunelle was the No. 1-ranked overall recruit in the class of 2019 according to ESPN. With a lights-out jumper and versatile playmaking abilities for her size at 6'2", the Ruckersville, Virginia native had offers from dozens of major conference programs. 

One school that reached out to Brunelle during the recruiting process was Michigan State. Brunelle received a phone call from a Michigan State assistant very early in her high school career - so early that today, Brunelle can't recall the exact details of the phone call. But the assistant still remembers. 

That assistant coach was Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who now serves as the head coach of the Virginia women's basketball program. Agugua-Hamilton, or "Coach Mox" as she is known, took another swing at recruiting Brunelle when she entered the transfer portal from Notre Dame last spring. And this time, Coach Mox got her. 

When Brunelle arrived in Charlottesville, Coach Mox asked her if she remembered that phone call from several years prior.

“[Coach Mox] recruited me, apparently, when I was really young when she was at Michigan State. She asked me if I remembered that. We had like one phone call. I didn’t actually remember it,” Brunelle said with a laugh. “She gave me a hard time about that.” 

Now, Agugua-Hamilton and Brunelle, who are both Virginia natives, are teaming up in the hopes of rebuilding a once-great Virginia women's basketball program and returning it to its former glory. 

As a native of Ruckersville, Virginia, Brunelle has fond memories of making the short 30-minute trip down to the Grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She grew up a huge UVA fan and even served as a ball girl at basketball games at John Paul Jones Arena. When Brunelle realized that there was a future for her playing basketball, it quickly became her dream to play at Virginia. 

Unfortunately, Brunelle and the Cavaliers couldn't quite get the timing right. 

In the spring of 2018, when Brunelle was being vigorously pursued by some of the top programs in the country like UConn, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Notre Dame, Virginia was far from being in a position to give its best effort towards recruiting Brunelle. 

UVA had just lost its women's basketball head coach, Joanne Boyle, who stepped down from her position and announced she was retiring from coaching due to a family matter just a couple of days after leading Virginia to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly a decade. As a result, UVA athletic director Carla Williams stepped in and was handling home visits with potential recruits while at the same time searching for Virginia's next women's basketball coach. By the time Williams found Boyle's successor, Sam Brunelle had already found her new home. 

"Coach Boyle had just stepped down as I was doing home visits and Carla Williams was actually the step-in for my home visit because they didn’t have a coach at the time," Brunelle said. "All fingers kind of pointed me at Notre Dame and I don’t regret that decision."

Although playing for Virginia would have been a dream come true for Brunelle, committing to a school that didn't have a coach couldn't really compare to the opportunity offered at a school like Notre Dame, which won the 2018 NCAA National Championship led by Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. Brunelle had already decided that Notre Dame was the right place for her before the Irish cut down the nets at the end of the 2018 season, but that certainly was a nice sweetener. 

The day after Brunelle announced her commitment to Notre Dame, Virginia announced the hiring of nine-time WNBA All-Star and four-time WNBA Champion Tina Thompson as the next women's basketball head coach at UVA. 

As far as Brunelle was concerned, the door to her playing for UVA had closed forever. The next few years would present unprecedented and unfathomable challenges for both Brunelle and the Virginia women's basketball program, but those hardships created the circumstances that produced the most improbable reunion. 

The beginning of Sam Brunelle's time in South Bend went about as well as she could have hoped. She started in all 31 games as a freshman, averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and earned an All-ACC Freshman Team selection. 

But that would be the only season Brunelle would play for the legendary Muffet McGraw, who announced her retirement after 33 years at Notre Dame at the end of the 2019-2020 season. 

Not only did Brunelle have to try to reestablish herself under new head coach Niele Ivey, but she also began to struggle with persistent injuries to her shoulder and knees over the next two seasons - not to mention the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Brunelle played in 49 games over the next two seasons, but didn't start any games and saw her scoring average go down to a career-low 6.8 points per game in 2021-2022. Her injury troubles worsened at the end of the season, as Brunelle was forced to undergo a major shoulder surgery.

"I had a complete labral tear at the end of last season," Brunelle said. "I had to get like nine anchors put in. And I am back in five months and that is remarkable. Most people take a lot longer than that. I'm feeling really great."

A change was also needed from an academic standpoint for Brunelle, who wants to be a teacher when her basketball career is done, as Notre Dame does not offer an education program. She would not leave Notre Dame without a degree, though, going to extreme lengths to be able to graduate this past summer after three years. 

"I took 19 credits during the spring semester at Notre Dame so I was able to graduate," Brunelle said. "And then I took three classes that were all really long, really tough over the summer to make sure that I could graduate. I did, so it was worth it." 

A few days after the Fighting Irish saw their season come to an end with a 66-63 loss to NC State in the Sweet Sixteen, Brunelle made the tough decision to enter the transfer portal, looking for a new home.

While Brunelle was nearly 700 miles away at Notre Dame, she never lost track of what was going on with the UVA women's basketball program she had loved and supported since her childhood. But she was saddened to see what happened to her hometown Hoos. 

"I grew up a UVA fan and I always follow them on social media and everything and still did even though I went to a different school," Brunelle said. "So I was keeping tabs while I was away and it was kind of sad to see, especially because of the amount of talent that I knew was here and they could have been really good."

As the No. 1 overall pick in the inaugural WNBA draft and an icon in the sport of women's basketball for the better part of two decades, Tina Thompson's basketball experience and influence could not be denied. But when she was hired as the head coach of the Virginia women's basketball program, the one aspect of her resume that was questioned was her lack of coaching experience. 

Prior to her hiring, Thompson had just three years of coaching under her belt as an assistant at Texas. At Virginia, she would have to face some of the top programs in all of women's basketball in the ACC and she would have to try to stabilize a UVA program reeling from unexpectedly losing its head coach. 

Thompson's four-year tenure at Virginia was rocky, to say the least. Things got off to a decent enough start, as UVA went 12-19 and then 13-17 in Thompson's second season, which included a very respectable 8-10 record in ACC play. But then COVID-19 obliterated any momentum the program had at that point. 

COVID complications and injuries in general plagued the team consistently over the next two seasons. And even when the team was healthy, the Cavaliers just couldn't put it all together on the court. Virginia ended up playing only five games in the 2020-2021 season, losing all five of them, before suspending the rest of the campaign. The 2021-2022 season didn't go much better as the Cavaliers went 5-22 overall and 2-16 in ACC play. Unsurprisingly, Virginia fired Tina Thompson shortly after the conclusion of the season. 

With another pivotal coaching search at hand, Carla Williams hired Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who is considered one of the most promising up-and-coming young coaches in the game. After accumulating nearly 15 years of coaching experience on the women's basketball staffs at VCU, Indiana, Old Dominion, and Michigan State - where she had that brief interaction with a young Sam Brunelle - "Coach Mox" took her first head coaching job at Missouri State and exploded onto the scene. 

In three seasons leading the Lady Bears, Coach Mox turned in a 73-15 overall record, won two Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles, and led Missouri State to two NCAA Tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 2021. 

As a native of Herndon, Virginia, Agugua-Hamilton grew up a UVA women's basketball fan and personally witnessed the program's finest years under Debbie Ryan. As such, she is familiar with what Virginia women's basketball can be and understands what it will take to return the Cavaliers to their winning ways. The first step in that process was clear: bring home one of the most talented basketball players to ever come out of Central Virginia. 

When Sam Brunelle entered the transfer portal on March 30th, Coach Mox and the Cavaliers were the first to reach out to her about a potential transfer to UVA. 

"As soon as I hit the transfer portal, they were the first people to reach out to me and it was like the snap of a finger - I had a text or a call from one of them," Brunelle recalled. "Coach Mox is also from Virginia, so she takes pride in keeping 'home kids' home. And I guess when she saw that I was in the transfer portal, that was an opportunity to snatch a kid back," she added with a smile.

Brunelle had scheduled three official visits for the beginning of April to Virginia, NC State, and Penn State and had planned to take at least those three visits before making a decision. But after taking her first official visit to UVA, Brunelle quickly realized that the visits to those other schools wouldn't be necessary. 

“UVA was the first official I took. I actually didn’t know I was going to commit while I was here, but I loved every ounce of it," said Brunelle. "I got that same feeling I got when I knew Notre Dame was right for me in high school and I knew if I got that feeling again, then it was the right place for me. It just so happened to be home... I committed that Saturday that I was leaving from my official here."

Brunelle loves Notre Dame and doesn't regret a moment she spent there despite all of the difficulties she faced in her time in South Bend. The injury troubles, COVID-19 complications, a major coaching change, and her academic situation - all of those challenges placed her on the path that led her back home to Virginia. 

"It’s very surreal how it’s all worked out," Brunelle said. "I’m a very firm believer in 'things happen for reasons' and they definitely did because I never would have thought I’d be able to have the chance to put that jersey on here. And being able to do that now and being able to help rebuild and be a piece of the puzzle that can get UVA women’s basketball back to where it was is very special... It's definitely full circle now and I think it's worked out how it was always supposed to."

With plans to get a master's in education and also pursue athletic administration, Brunelle says she intends to stay at Virginia for the next two years, exercising her fourth and fifth seasons of eligibility. In those two years, Brunelle has high hopes for what the Virginia women's basketball team can achieve. 

“We have so much potential," Brunelle said. "We could be really, really good if we put it all together like we’re doing now, piece by piece, day by day."

With Coach Mox at the helm and talented players like Sam Brunelle determined to turn this program around, the immediate future of Virginia women's basketball is very bright.