Katie Brunelle first caught a glimpse of what could become of her daughter’s basketball career when Samantha took the court as a sixth-grader in an AAU National Championship tournament.
“She came up to us after the first night and said, ‘I want to be the best,’” Katie Brunelle recited. “She’s always had that drive, but after that, it was all basketball.”
At the time, Samantha Brunelle was a three-sport athlete. She dropped the other two by the eighth grade. She was seven when her parents paved a portion of the yard at their Ruckersville home so she would have a court to practice on, and she picked up her first college scholarship offer in the seventh grade.
Brunelle has since earned offers from the top college teams in the country, including the past three national champions Notre Dame (2018), South Carolina (2017) and UConn (2016). The 6-foot-3 junior was the 2017-18 Gatorade State Player of the Year.
Last week, she made her fourth trip to the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she’s competed in Argentina and Spain as a member of Team USA.
“The game of basketball has taken our family a lot of places, and basketball has literally shown Sam the world,” Katie Brunelle said. “Our family has been invited into some of the most prestigious offices and spent time with some of the most honored people in this game.”
After averaging more than 25 points and 15 rebounds for the third year in a row, Brunelle is the 2017-18 Central Virginia Girls Basketball Player of the Year. It’s the second time she’s earned the honor since her freshman year.
“There are some players we, as coaches, are just blessed to be able to work with, and Sam is one of those players,” William Monroe head coach Jess Stafford said. “She doesn’t see herself as some superstar, and she doesn’t act like one. She just comes to work every day, and she’s been dedicated to the game of basketball for as long as I’ve known her.”
Brunelle’s career carried the family to so many places her mom can’t remember if that sixth-grade national tournament was in Tennessee or Ohio. The long recruiting journey comes to an end on Sunday, though, as Brunelle is set to announce her decision in front of the public at 4 p.m. in the William Monroe High School gym.
She whittled a list of more than 40 scholarship offers down to nine: South Carolina, UConn, Notre Dame, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Kentucky and Maryland.
Brunelle said on Sunday that she’s made her decision and the necessary calls to the top schools on her list.
“It has been stressful, but it’s a blessing just to have to opportunity just to meet some of these coaches,” Sam Brunelle said. “I’m thankful to all of them, and I know the work is just beginning.”
This season, Brunelle averaged 30 points and 15.6 rebounds a game. She scored 30 points in a game 12 times, including a string of seven straight games in January in which her lowest point total was 30 and her highest was 40.
“Sam knows what she can do on the court, but the great thing about her is she’s never satisfied,” Stafford said. “She’s always working to make herself and her teammates better.”
Brunelle broke the 40-point barrier three times, including dropping 45 on Thomas Jefferson (Richmond) in the opening round of the Class 3, Region B tournament. Her season high was 49 points on Jan. 26 against Culpeper.
She scored her 2,000th point, became the first Gatorade and VHSL state player of the year in William Monroe history and led the Greene Dragons to their first state playoff appearance since 1988. But really, Brunelle was just following in her mom’s footsteps.
Second generation Dragon
Katie Brunelle was on that William Monroe state tournament team in 1988.
“I just remember a continued emphasis on getting better each day and how excited we were to represent Greene County,” Katie said. “The support we had was amazing. That’s what living in a small town is all about.”
That season wasn’t the first state-tournament experience for Katie and her teammates. It was actually the third time they made it out of the regional round, which was a much tougher task to accomplish in those days.
Back then, only the regional champion advanced to states.
“You couldn’t lose one and move on,” Katie said. “You couldn’t have a letdown, and every night, you knew you had to up your game.”
Katie can’t remember if the Greene Dragons got a parade that year, but the chances are good. Stanardsville shut down and showed up to greet Sam before she went to Spain with Team USA in 2016, and the baseball team got a parade after a state-title run in 2012.
“Sam has a good head on her shoulders, and we have a lot of people to thank for that,” Katie said. “Greene County has always been supportive of its athletes.”
Katie still keeps up with many of her former teammates. There’s Shawnette Brooks, who currently has a daughter on the William Monroe junior varsity team.
“She’s always telling me stories about when she played and how much she loved playing for Greene County,” Sam Brunelle said of her mother. “Of course, she still coaches me up off the court, but she always told me it’s about more than me. It’s about representing this community in the right way.”
Katie — a former basketball and softball coach at Orange County High and the current principal at William Monroe — is well practiced at keeping her ultra-talented daughter grounded. She’s had to be since college suitors started coveting her daughter in middle school.
A star from the start
Wake Forest was the first to sniff around when Brunelle was in the sixth grade. Before officially offering the seventh-grader almost a year later, head coach Jennifer Hoover reached out to Katie.
“I was speechless. What do you say to that?” Katie said. “It’s one of those moments in time you will never forget.”
That call sparked a journey which took the Brunelle family south to South Carolina and Texas and west to Kentucky and South Bend, Indiana.
“We went from big cities to small towns,” Katie said. “All the schools stood out and they all had beautiful campuses, but she can only say yes to one.”
Katie’s main piece of advice to her daughter when the recruiting process began to heat up was “don’t burn bridges.”
None of the tours, red carpets and royal treatment Brunelle received during those visits have gone to her head. Even after being named the No. 1 2019 prospect in the country during the fall of her sophomore season, she’s a humble superstar, who found ways to get the Greene Dragons’ trio of freshmen starters involved this spring and found time to pose for pictures and sign autographs after most games.
That, much more than the 52 percent Brunelle shot from the floor this season, is what makes her mom swell with pride.
“She understands that with great ability comes the responsibility to play the game the right way,” Katie said. “To make it in basketball as a female, you have to be willing to grow the sport, and what better way than to make time for the young people who look up to you?”
Perched in the stands of gymnasiums from Greene County to Spain, Katie Brunelle witnessed her daughter grow up on the basketball court.
It doesn’t matter where she spends the next four years or what new heights she reaches, to her mom, Brunelle will always be that sixth-grader with intense eyes and an innate drive to be the best.