In the moment that Sam Brunelle verbally committed to Notre Dame two Aprils ago, there was not a more revered women’s college basketball prospect in the country, per ESPN’s player rankings.
And the 6-foot-2 forward’s belief was that she could be stepping into a dynasty when she arrived on Notre Dame’s campus last June.
When it all came unraveled during the freshman college season of the Ruckersville, Va., product, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw got to see how special of a player Brunelle truly was.
On a daily basis and when no one else was watching.
“She came into the gym every day with a smile on her face,” McGraw told the Tribune. “We’d be in our meeting at 9 a.m., and the lights in the gym would come on. And there she was getting shots up after her 8 o’clock class and before her 10 o’clock class.
“She spent more time in the gym than any player — I think — I don’t even know how far back I’d have to go. She had a great mindset in terms of, ‘I just want to get better. Tell me how to get better. What do you want me to do? What do you need me to do?’
“She was never someone that looked at any kind of stat. She was just so open to coaching.”
And in guard Anaya Peoples, the only other scholarship true freshman on a depleted Irish roster, Brunelle had a peer — in mindset, in fierceness, in potential.
The only real difference was the 5-10 guard’s season ended after 18 games, in mid-January, because of a torn right labrum in her shoulder, and Brunelle’s carried on to the bitter end of a 13-18 Irish run.
Statistically, Brunelle ended up ND’s second-leading scorer, at 13.9 points per game, and her 58 3-pointers are the second-most in school history by a freshman.
Peoples, from Danville, Ill., was at 12.6 ppg when her season truncated, and she led the team in rebounding (8.1).
“It was almost unfair to put that kind of pressure on freshmen,” McGraw said. “We’ve never had to rely on them that much to carry the load. Even freshmen who played a lot for us always had older players around them to deal with the pressure.”
The beauty is in how Brunelle and Peoples responded, and that’s the foundation of Notre Dame’s rebuild, as McGraw sees it.
Peoples just got out of a sling from her surgery in the past few days, and McGraw says she’s right on the four-month recovery timeline.
“She’s doing some lower-body workouts,” McGraw said. “It’s a slow process. But she’s feisty. We can’t wait to get her back when we come back to school in June.”
The entire Irish team is partaking in online learning at their respective homes through the end of the spring semester, a process that began Monday in wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I usually had former players come talk to the team, but I didn’t this year, because they had no frame of reference to what this team was going through,” McGraw said. “Sam and Anaya figured it out anyway.
“They would come up after practice and be like, “I’ve got so much to work on. Gosh, I’ve got so much to learn.’ I just finished a book called ‘Mindset.’ It talks about having a growth mindset, and that’s what they both have.
“They’re just so open-minded to getting better, and that’s exactly what we needed this year and in the future.”