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'Sunday’s game is going to be special for me': Former William Monroe star Sam Brunelle returns home with Notre Dame

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Sam Brunelle

Rick OsentoskiNotre Dame forward Sam Brunelle will return to her native Central Virginia on Sunday when the Fighting Irish face Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Nearly a decade ago, Samantha Brunelle was selected to serve as a ball girl at home games for the University of Virginia’s women’s basketball team.

On Sunday, Brunelle will return to the floor at John Paul Jones Arena in a much different role.

The former William Monroe High School standout leads Notre Dame into Charlottesville in her first game back to Central Virginia as a college basketball player.

“Sunday’s game is going to be special for me,” Brunelle said. “I have many family and friends coming and I am so excited to be playing back home. However, it is a business trip and I plan to treat it just like any other game and go out and just play Notre Dame basketball.”

Brunelle has been a fixture in Coach Muffet McGraw’s lineup since arriving in South Bend. She’s started all 19 games for the Irish this season and ranks second on the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game and averages 6.1 rebounds a contest.

She scored a career-high 31 points in a December loss to DePaul and was named ACC Freshman of the Week. The 6-foot-2 forward has scored in double figures in 13 of 19 games, including a 25-point effort in the Irish’s 76-53 win over Miami in their last game.

“I think I am in a unique position, playing many minutes in my first year, but also learning a lot and making mistakes and growing from them,” Brunelle said. “I have an opportunity to be a leader and I am still growing in those aspects.”

This has been a year of transition for Notre Dame, which graduated five senior starters from a team that’s reached the NCAA championship game each of the past two years and won the national championship in 2018.

“It has been a roller coaster of a year,” Brunelle said. “We have had times where we are so high and some times where we aren’t quite there, but I have loved getting to learn and grow so much in my first year.”

Brunelle has never shied away from competition on the hardwood. She started her first varsity game at William Monroe and completed her high school career as the program’s all-time leader in points (2,229) and rebounds (1,272), including a 25-point, 21-rebound performance in a playoff loss to Hopewell in her final high school game.

She also has represented her country internationally, winning three gold medals and a bronze as a member of USA Basketball’s U16, U17 and U18 squads.

Despite all her experience, Brunelle admits that Division I basketball is at another level.

“It is definitely hard going from playing at the high school level to the college level in all aspects, physically and mentally,” Brunelle said. “There are times where it is super hard, but during those times, I look to use them, not as failures, but as an opportunity of learning and growth.”

“The game is played at a much faster and higher pace in college and my ability to think has had to increase tremendously and quickly,” she continued. “I will say Notre Dame has been amazing. I know I made the best decision of my life coming to Notre Dame and I know that the future is only brighter.”

The Ruckersville native had a strong start to her college career with a big performance in a 60-55 win over Fordham. She scored a team-high 14 points, grabbed five rebounds and added three assists in 33 minutes of action.

“My first game as an Irish was amazing,” Brunelle. “We played at Fordham and I had both my parents there to watch. I can remember feeling some nerves, but not bad nerves that were for excitement for starting my dream I had since I was little.”

But it hasn’t been all fun and games this season.

Injuries have forced Brunelle to play multiple positions, including center against taller opponents.

“I have learned a lot this season, being placed in many different positions,” Brunelle said. “I am actually happy I was and still am in that position because it only grows my versatility and helps me grow as a player in many different areas on the court.”

Brunelle has found her stride recently and has averaged more than 20 points a game in her last two contests heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Cavaliers.

The former William Monroe standout has fond memories of John Paul Jones Arena. As a child, she went to numerous basketball camps under former UVa coaches Debbie Ryan and Joanne Boyle. She started as a ball girl in the fourth grade and helped out on game days for two seasons.

“I have many, many memories of JPJ and UVa,” Brunelle said. “I met some great people and players at UVa. I still chat with them from time to time. I can remember watching UVa play Maryland and UVa upset Maryland that year and I can remember it being ecstatic in JPJ and filled with excitement and cheering, including some coming from me.”

Two years ago, she was in the stands to watch Notre Dame play Virginia in Charlottesville.

“Another game I remember is when Notre Dame came to JPJ the year I committed and that was the year they won the national championship,” Brunelle said. “I can remember watching Notre Dame and thinking, wow this team is so special. Now I am here and as happy as ever.”

Brunelle won’t be the only Notre Dame player with Virginia ties on the bench on Sunday. Marta Sniezek, a grad transfer from McLean, also will be on the bench for the Irish.

The former William Monroe standout said her phone has been inundated with well-wishes heading into Sunday’s matchup.

“I have received some messages of good luck for the upcoming game,” she said. “Getting to play back in the area means a lot because it is home, and it always feels good to come home.”

Even though it’s a Virginia home game, there will be a strong local contingent cheering for No. 33 on Notre Dame too.

Brunelle is proud of the legacy that she left in Central Virginia and hopes to continue to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams on the hardwood.

“At one point, I was them and had these grand dreams to play at the next level and now I was able to accomplish that dream,” Brunelle said. “That happened because I wanted more out of myself and I fell in love with the process and in the end, the results brought me to Notre Dame, which has been the greatest result I could ask for.”

“My message to them is to never stop dreaming,” she continued. “Always want more and fall in love with the process and it will take you places someday.”

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