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A Gym Rat's Notebook #12: There's No Place Like Home, Toto
by Elijah Kyle, 4/1/04

A puzzled, quixotic and somewhat saddened atmosphere permeates Blacksburg as the Queen of the Cassell’s reign has abruptly ended. While Bonnie Ball is now a Midwest permutation, people in Blacksburg and throughout Hokie Nation are now left with another question to ask, aside from "What the hell is Rock Chalk Jayhawk supposed to mean"?

A legacy of excellence is the lasting residue of Bonnie Henrickson’s seven years as head basketball coach at Virginia Tech. As rookie first timers go, her guidance and steady hand can make a case for future coaches looking to take control of a program for the first time. Henrickson never appeared to be anything other than in total charge of her program, never letting anyone see her sweat. She led Virginia Tech teams to the post season in all seven years here. She built a 158-62 record during her time here. Her teams won at least twenty games in every season. The sustained excellence is something heretofore unseen under any previous coach of the women’s program.

There is no question that the rock chalkers’ are about to get an upgrade on the sidelines. No less an authority than Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma has been quoted many times concerning his enormous respect for the talent and skills of Henrickson. Kansas put together an impressive package to entice Henrickson, but it’s the type of package necessary to lure a successful coach in a high profile conference.

Henrickson was an ambassador for women’s basketball in her time here at Virginia Tech. She recruited solid kids and students into her program who represented the university well. She was always a cool, calm and composed presence on the sideline and conducted her program with a professional and businesslike approach. One always felt that Henrickson’s teams would be steady and prepared, because that was her personality, and teams will often assume the personality of the head coach.

It was also obvious that Henrickson had become frustrated to some extent in her tenure here. Only she knows the full extent of that frustration and the reasons for it boiling to the surface. Many have speculated that it involved the athletic administration. It very well may have, but it also appears that she had become frustrated with her team as well. She certainly sounded like a frustrated coach who called some of her players’ mental toughness, and perhaps even heart, into question after the second round NCAA tournament loss to Penn State.

"They (Penn State) fought fatigue better than we did. Their kids were as tired as ours were, but they fought it," said Henrickson. "Our kids got brain-tired and let it happen. They’re not in any better shape than we are, but they’re tougher between the ears than ours were."

The line between mental toughness and desire and heart is certainly a fine one. Only Henrickson truly knows if this was a veiled attempt at questioning the toughness of some of her players. Mental toughness incorporates a number of things, focus, confidence and concentration among them. Speaking though about fatigue, while stating that the Penn State players were not in better shape than her own players, seems to be questioning some of the desire of her own team.

Virginia Tech certainly did seem to hit a wall during the second half in the loss, when Penn State took control of the game. Penn State seemingly was able to capture every loose ball and rebound, while making big play after big play, especially senior point guard Jess Strom and the game’s leading scorer, Tanisha Wright, who crushed the Hokies throughout the game. One can’t help but to wonder, while watching the Penn State performance in the second half, if perhaps Henrickson’s teams aren’t prisoners to some extent of her personality, of which the team seemed to follow so acutely this year. While Strom and Wright made big plays, then showed the emotion of the moment and game, the Tech players responded with no change of expression, even during critical junctures or critical moments.

Basketball, as well as most sports, has to be played with emotion. You can’t prepare your teams, nor win games based on emotion strictly. It will mean a wildly inconsistent flow that will result in extreme highs and lows. But, you have to enjoy playing, and you have to respond with emotion, something that we didn’t see enough of this year with this team. Seeing Strom and Wright pump their fists and energize themselves and their teammates during that impressive second half run, showed how very important emotion is, while not relied upon as the sole determinant in a game. Emotion is what can help get players through fatigue. A loud and enthusiastic crowd can help get a home team over the hump, when they are pushing to drive through that wall of fatigue. Penn State’s players seemed to have had it last week, while the Tech ladies showed no emotional change, which is eerily similar to the way that their former head coach approached her job.

Bonnie Henrickson’s cool demeanor and the way she approached her job, games and team was a significant factor in her success here at Virginia Tech. It also might have undermined her team as well, because the enjoyment and emotion in her players seemed to largely have been removed. Players must have the detached focus to go on the road and win basketball games, not letting a hostile crowd interfere. Players must be able to singularly focus on the task at hand, and not become sidetracked. There also must be emotion, and the players must enjoy what they are doing, and for some reason, that seemed to be missing in this team.

There has been a constant stream of freshmen that have come into the program who have had difficulty adjusting to Bonnie Henrickson. Chrystal Starling, Dawn Chriss, Kerri Gardin and most recently, Brittany Anderson, have all indirectly mentioned the adjustment period to Bonnie Henrickson. The run of success can not be overlooked, and Henrickson will be greatly missed. She elevated the stature and profile of the program and has left it in much greater hands than when she arrived seven years ago.

The cupboard is far from empty though, and the new coach will have a team that is accustomed to winning and success in place. Point guard and the heart of the team, Carrie Mason, returns for her junior year. Inside scorer and senior Erin Gibson returns, as do wing players Gardin and Chriss. The Virginia Tech program under Henrickson has been marked by stringent half court defense, which was a consistent hallmark of her teams, along with a patient half-court offensive style that was predicated on pounding the ball inside.

While crowds have leveled off recently, it will be interesting to see in what direction Jim Weaver turns for the next head coach. Certainly, someone with head coach experience would seem to be a no-brainer. Virginia Tech is coming off a long run of sustained success under Henrickson, and the national profile of the program has been greatly elevated. Moving into the ACC won’t hurt the program either, so the pool of candidates should be a reasonably good one. From this vantage point, looking toward someone that incorporates a sound background of success, has been a proven winner and recruiter seems to be non-negotiable ingredients. If that coach arrives with a different style of play that is more uptempo, taking advantage of the athleticism of the team more, while allowing the ladies to illuminate emotion at times, can’t be all that bad.

Carrie Mason seems adaptable to playing in either a half court or full court type tempo. While Erin Gibson would seem to be the player most helped by Henrickson’s slow, methodical style of play, both Dawn Chriss and Kerri Gardin seemed to always be looking over their shoulders, wondering what constituted a good shot in Henrickson’s system. Both of those players would be able to thrive in a more uptempo system that would allow them to use their length, speed and athleticism, while getting easier shots. Neither seemed comfortable pulling the trigger with their jump shot, and would often eschew good shots. While we never saw the team play anything but a half court man-to-man defense, using some half court traps and full court defensive pressure would seem suited to some of the key returning players’ strengths.

Bonnie Henrickson is gone and that puff of smoke that trailed her has all but evaporated. The departure was jaw-numbingly rapid, but few coaches set up tent for an entire career. We thank Henrickson for taking this program to a place where people actually care that there is a change. We can thank Henrickson for her dedication to her craft and pursuit of excellence while here. We can thank Henrickson that there are many Virginia Tech fans who now actually follow and care about Virginia Tech women's basketball. We can thank Henrickson for seven years of post season play, because after all, post season is all that anyone should really hold as a barometer of success for a coach long term.

We can also look forward and eagerly follow the new coaching search, hoping that the resume of the next coach is an impressive one that will excite the faithful. We can also look forward to the distinctions that might separate Henrickson and the new coach, hoping that all it takes is a quick pit stop before the car is back on its way, rather than an extended time spent in the garage.

The fact that many Tech fans will even follow this coaching search is something that not very many did just seven years ago, prior to Henrickson’s hiring by former Virginia Tech Athletic Director Dave Braine. For that fact alone, that many more care now than before, we can thank Bonnie Henrickson.


Other Gym Rat Notebooks:

A Gym Rat's Notebook #11: About the Over/Under?
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #10: Did You Say Four, or Forty?
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #9: Big Game, Big Year, and Big Hopes
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #8: Home, Sweet, Home
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #7: On or Off Broadway?
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #6: Trolling for Additions
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #5: Georgetown a Must Win?
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #4: Defense in Numbers
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A Gym Rat's Notebook #3: Chemistry Class and Hitting It Early
by Elijah Kyle, 1/21/04

A Gym Rat's Notebook #2: Subtraction and Addition
by Elijah Kyle, 1/13/04

A Gym Rat's Notebook #1: Hey, Brother, Can You Spare a Big Man?
by Elijah Kyle, 1/6/04


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