How ‘Sweet’ it is: Bonnie Henrickson reflects on past, speaks on current Virginia Tech Women’s basketball team

Updated: Mar. 24, 2023 at 5:00 PM EDT
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(WDBJ) - Sometimes the best way to prepare for the future is to understand the past, and this year’s run to the Sweet 16 from the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team mirrors the groundbreaking season of the 1999 lady Hokies.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be a Hokie.” The feeling may be difficult to explain, but former women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson knows it’s special.

Coach Henrickson’s team made the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA tournament more than 20 years ago with a squad that was built to achieve.

“They were driven to succeed; they were driven to compete. They loved to compete. Practices were intense and competitive but they loved each other,” she remembers.

That year, Tech faced, and would be eliminated by, No. 1 seed Tennessee with legendary coach Pat Summitt calling the shots.

At the time, Hokie Tere Williams spoke about the future of the program the night before the game.

“In the future, we want to be a team like Tennessee and to play against them tomorrow is just a steppingstone for becoming one of the teams that we want and hope to be before we graduate,” Williams explained back in 1999.

This year, the roles are reversed as the Hokies hold the top rank entering Saturday’s matchup with the Volunteers.

“It’s not ironic, but it’s part of the path. When they made such a great run in the ACC tournament, and really down the stretch when you look at their last ten or 11 games, they’ve positioned themselves. They’ve earned that seed,” adds Coach Henrickson. “Now, you just have to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is preparing for Tennessee and 40 minutes to take another step forward and I told [Kenny Brooks] ‘take the next step.’ He said ‘we’re trying to do what you did,’ and I said ‘go one step further, take it one step at a time.’ They’re in a position to do that. They really are.”

The next step forward is something Coach Henrickson and current head coach Kenny Brooks have discussed as they’ve advanced throughout the tournament.

“Be who you are, who you are is good enough. At this point right now, they get to be who they are,” she says about the current Virginia Tech team. “I’m not going to tell [Brooks] anything- he doesn’t need my help, he’d say the same thing. It’s a balance of understanding and recognizing the moment, but not making the moment too big and he’s done a great job because of how they handle their business at home.”

After Henrickson left Virginia Tech for Kansas in 2004, Beth Dunkenberger headed the program for seven seasons, followed by Dennis Wolff, with the Kenny Brooks era beginning in 2017.

During that time, the program moved out of the Atlantic 10 and eventually joined the ACC, having the assets to cultivate a competitive program.

“You can’t dismiss that about the resources, the practice facility, the new complex. That was the next step to be able to compete, so if you’re going into the ACC with programs that have made that commitment to women’s basketball and that’s what it’s taken across the country,” Coach Henrickson explains. “You can’t underestimate how the department has grown. If the department doesn’t grow, I don’t know that women’s basketball can. You have to evolve as in institution with support, and they’ve done that.”

While some things have changed since Henrickson coached in maroon and orange, she says the local support for the program has stayed strong.

“Virginia Tech and Blacksburg is a place where you can fall in love with a team because it’s small enough, you’re going to see them around town, it’s big enough that they can be themselves around campus and in the community. Just the love affair that the community ended up having with the team, when you talk about doing something special, you have to win at home and nothing helps you win at home like having a fanbase that is crazy in love with your program and that’s what that felt like.”

Knowing that no matter the outcome, the impact will last a lifetime.

“The young women who are grown with families and have amazing careers professionally, whatever they’re doing, still brings up the same thing 20 years later,” she adds. “It’ll being up the same thing for them 20 years later and that’s what we didn’t know at that time but we all know now and that’s why we can say that this is something that will carry for the rest of their lives, they just don’t know it yet.”

Henrickson currently coaches at UC Santa Barbara.