Anyone can understand why the pressure was mounting.
It had been nearly 30 years since a William Monroe girls basketball team had qualified for the state tournament.
The Dragons have fallen just short the last two years.
Their opponent Tuesday, Brentsville, ended the Dragons season a year ago and Monroe doesn’t have a single senior on the roster.
So the fact that Monroe played a little tight and struggled to finish on the offensive end didn’t come as a surprise. But the Dragons leaned on their defensive identity against the Tigers and that was enough to hold on for a 44-34 win and the program’s first state tournament berth since 1988.
“Defense is who we we are, it’s who we’ve always been and it’s what we were meant to be,” said William Monroe junior Lacey Beale. “It’s not difficult for us to lean on our defense when our offense is struggling a little bit.”
Junior Sam Brunelle powered the win, scoring 24 points, pulling down 18 rebounds and dishing out six assists. She scored 10 of those 24 in the fourth quarter, going 4-for-5 at the line down the stretch. Monroe (23-0) went 8-for-9 at the line in the final frame to prevent Brentsville from clawing back into it, with Iyannah Carey and Hailey Morris hitting two big free throws each. That steadiness allowed the Dragons eventually sew up the historic win, giving the program its first state tournament berth since Brunelle’s mother Katie stepped on the floor for the Dragons.
“It’s insane because the last people to do it were my mom’s group and that was a long time ago,” Brunelle said. “For us to be back in this spot 30 years down the road is amazing.”
Head coach Jess Stafford was among those not surprised that the Dragons played like they were feeling the pressure. Earlier in the week she’d actually had players wear a weighted vest and play in it, then take it off to symbolize the feeling of making the choice not to feel the pressure.
“(We said) you need to choose to take the pressure off of yourself,” Stafford said. “I imagine Friday we’re going to play incredibly free because we’ve done what we’ve tried to do for three years now and been unable to do it. A tremendous weight is lifted off their shoulders.”
While the Dragons mostly still played at times like they were feeling that pressure with uncharacteristic missed lay-ups and rushed shots, the defense anchored them, holding Brentsville, a team they’ve played nine times in the last three years, to just four first quarter points, then six in the second quarter and just 12 in the final frame.
It didn’t hurt either that freshman Jenna Velasquez didn’t play like she was feeling that pressure. Velasquez scored eight points and hauled in nine rebounds, six of them on the offensive glass. With a couple of key putbacks she kept Brentsville from locking down on Brunelle and opened some things up for her teammates.
“She gets better and better every single game,” Brunelle said. “She’s improving all the time, tonight was a big game for her.”
Catherine Forst finished with 15 to lead Brentsville, who’s season ends with the loss. The Dragons will take on Culpeper in the Class 3, Region B championship game Friday at home before their state quarterfinal clash next week.