Graduate student forward Sam Brunelle is no stranger to John Paul Jones Arena. She grew up a short drive away in Greene County, Va. and became a Virginia women’s basketball fan at the tail end of legendary Coach Debbie Ryan’s tenure. As she grew up, Brunelle made frequent trips to John Paul Jones with her family, getting so close to the program that she even served as a ball girl, dreaming of the day she might get the chance to take the court herself in an orange and blue uniform.
“When I was a ball girl I was always thinking, ‘Ooh, I could wear that jersey someday, playing in front of my family and friends.’” Brunelle said.
While she is now able to live out that fantasy, she didn’t arrive at this moment quite how anyone would have expected.
Brunelle grew and developed her basketball skills at Virginia-hosted camps alongside her favorite players. By the time she was playing at William Monroe High School, she had begun to receive national attention.
In high school, Brunelle was selected as a member of the U16, U17 and U18 USA national basketball teams from 2016 to 2018. Her small home county celebrated the star it had generated, holding a parade after she returned from a Team USA victory with one of her three gold medals. She was equally dominant on William Monroe’s court, helping end a regional championship drought.
It seemed like the stars had aligned and Brunelle would have her pick for which collegiate program she would continue her playing career at — and why wouldn’t the hometown heroine pick Virginia?
Unfortunately, Virginia’s program had not flourished alongside Brunelle’s ascent to the top of many college recruiting boards. At the time of Brunelle’s recruitment in spring 2018, the program was coachless and directionless after the surprising resignation of Ryan’s successor Coach Joanne Boyle.
Meanwhile, top programs including South Carolina, Kentucky and even UConn actively pursued Brunelle. She eventually landed on Notre Dame, wanting to play under legendary Coach Muffet McGraw.
“I don’t think that at the time when she made that decision there was another choice for her,” Sam’s mother Katie said. “You’ll know when you know.”
It seemed that Brunelle and Virginia had just missed each other and that her childhood dream of donning the orange and blue uniform would remain just that — a dream. Instead, Brunelle returned to John Paul Jones Arena in 2020 wearing the Fighting Irish’s green and gold.
However, unexpected circumstances in both Notre Dame and Virginia’s programs, as well as in Brunelle’s career, set a course for an unlikely reunion. McGraw announced her retirement in 2020 after Brunelle had a standout freshman campaign, averaging 13.9 points per game to lead all ACC freshmen. Under a new coaching staff, Brunelle faced injury concerns and saw a diminished role over her next two seasons. After her junior campaign, Brunelle fully tore her labrum.
Meanwhile, Virginia was floundering under the leadership of former coach Tina Thompson, and the added complications of COVID-19 exacerbated the issue. A suspended season followed by a 5-22 record the following year were enough to warrant a change. Both Brunelle and the Cavaliers needed a fresh start. Brunelle entered the transfer portal, while Virginia relieved Thompson of her duties and announced it had hired Coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton.
The new coaching staff recruited Brunelle as soon as she entered the portal. Coach Mox brought an excellent resume and two mottos to Charlottesville that resonated with Brunelle, ultimately leading to a decision to transfer to Virginia — “Grind now, shine later” and “Culture wins.” Brunelle is now excited to make her dream of playing at Virginia a reality while helping establish Coach Mox’s new culture.
“Obviously, my path was a little bit different in getting here,” Brunelle said. “But now I’m here, and it’s gonna be exciting to be able to wear that jersey.”
Coach Mox is equally as excited to receive a player like Brunelle in her first year at Virginia, emphasizing her offensive impact and ability to stretch the floor.
“Her versatility really fits into our style of play,” Coach Mox said. “If she didn’t fit … hometown or not I wouldn’t recruit her. She has to fit our culture and she has to fit our basketball style to play.”
While it may seem like a fairytale reunion between program and player, Brunelle knows she will face adversity helping to build a program from the ground up while recovering from severe injuries. She received nine anchors in her shoulder and required five months of rehab and recovery before she received clearance to return. Brunelle relied heavily on her new teammates, coaching staff and sports medicine team to help her through the recovery process.
Now, Brunelle relishes the opportunity to overcome that adversity with her team.
“Being able to be resilient is huge for me,” Brunelle said. “That’s my word for the season … resilient. I’m gonna look at it every day before games [and] before practice to remind me [that] it’s not going to be easy. My journey has not been easy since I’ve been in college, right?”
Being close to home has helped ease the stress of recovery, fitting in at a new school and adjusting to her third collegiate coaching staff in four years. Brunelle is now able to easily drive home and visit her parents for dinner throughout the week or catch up with old friends.
“It’s been everything I thought it would be,” Brunelle said. “I’m lucky to be able to go home. Before it was 10 hours [away]. Now I’ve got my support system here in the backyard basically.”
Brunelle fully expects John Paul Jones Arena to be full of Greene County residents for her return.
For Coach Mox, Brunelle’s return is the perfect way to begin the new era and reestablish a winning culture for the women’s program through recruiting and retaining local talent.
“I want to keep the hometown kids home,” Mox said. “Especially in a storied program like this. They understand right away what it means to have [Virginia] on their chest.”
Though Brunelle took a winding road home, she is confident that the decisions she has made and trials she has faced thus far will only stand to benefit her as she makes her childhood dream of playing as a Cavalier come true.
“I don’t regret my journey,” Brunelle said. “I think it’s made me a better person. It’s made me who I am now. I’m thankful and blessed that I can be here now for these next two years.”