After reaching the WNIT championship game last season, the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team has a more prestigious postseason destination in mind this year.
The Hokies have not advanced to the NCAA tournament since 2006, but they are determined to end that drought.
“We’re so excited to see where this year takes us, and we know we have the potential,” said senior guard Taylor Emery, whose team opens the season Tuesday against USC Upstate. “We have an NCAA-caliber team.”
All five players who started in the WNIT title game loss at Indiana are back, giving Tech confidence that it can reach the NCAAs.
“We definitely have the team to get there, in having everyone back from last year and building on our momentum and adding the new pieces,” fifth-year senior power forward Regan Magarity said. “We definitely have the talent to get there.”
“Last year we had our run and we had our greatness too late in the season,” Emery said. “This year we just have to keep it going throughout the entire season.”
Emery and Magarity are among five seniors on the squad, which went 23-14 last season. Tech tied for ninth place in the ACC with a 6-10 league mark — its most ACC wins since the 2006-07 campaign.
The Hokies have wound up in the WNIT the past three seasons, including the final year of the Dennis Wolff coaching era and the first two seasons of Kenny Brooks’ coaching reign.
“You don’t just … add a coach and turn this thing around in this league. … It’s the best league in the country,” Brooks said. “It’s a process. We’re on pace, maybe even a little bit ahead.
“I definitely think that we’re an NCAA-caliber team. That’s our goal. We’ll be disappointed if we don’t make that.”
The Hokies were only picked 11th out of 15 teams last month in the ACC’s preseason poll of coaches, media members and sports information directors.
“It gives us motivation to prove people wrong,” Magarity said.
“We’ll be better than we were last year,” Brooks said. “The hard part is our league is probably better than it was last year.”
Brooks wishes Tech didn’t have to play two games apiece against 2018 NCAA tournament participants Miami and Virginia again this year. He envies Syracuse, which gets to play two games apiece against ACC lightweights Pittsburgh and Boston College.
Emery, who made the All-ACC second team last season, is back on the wing for Tech. She averaged 18.5 points last season.
The frontcourt again boasts Magarity, who averaged 13.2 points and 9.6 rebounds.
But Tech has depth issues in the frontcourt.
Alexis Jean, a returning starter at power forward (8.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), suffered a separated shoulder in practice and will be out until early December.
Backup forward Michelle Berry has an undisclosed medical condition and might miss the entire season.
“So we’re very thin again in the post,” Brooks said.
Rachel Camp, a 5-foot-10 fifth-year senior who ended last season as the starting point guard, could start at power forward alongside Magarity on Tuesday.
Junior-college transfer Trinity Baptiste will also see action at power forward.
“It would have been really nice if we could have eased her in,” Brooks said. “Now we’ve got to pretty much throw her to the fire.”
The 6-foot-1 Baptiste averaged 13.0 points and 8.3 rebounds as a redshirt freshman at Northwest Florida State College last season.
“She’s really strong,” Magarity said. “She can rebound the ball.”
Last season, starting point guard Chanette Hicks left the Hokies after a Feb. 1 win at Syracuse. The Norfolk native transferred to Norfolk State over the summer.
This season’s backcourt will feature freshman point guard Dara Mabrey, who was twice named the Gatorade player of the year for the state of New Jersey.
“My IQ will translate to the college game pretty well,” Mabrey said. “I can outsmart players that might be bigger than me or faster than me.”
The 5-foot-7 Mabrey is the younger sister of Notre Dame star Marina Mabrey and former Notre Dame standout Michaela Mabrey.
She said she picked Virginia Tech over Miami, North Carolina State, Louisville and Virginia. She considered Notre Dame as well.
“In high school, I was the one at the end of the game who had to take the last shot,” she said. “I embraced every moment of that. So I’m embracing every minute that I’m going to get as a freshman. I’m embracing that I already have a leadership role out there as the point guard.”
Mabrey will also see some time at off-guard.
“She is a great shooter,” Marina Mabrey said of her younger sister. “As soon as she steps over halfcourt, you’ve got to guard her.”
Camp and Magarity will be used at point guard as well.
The other starting guard will be Aisha Sheppard or Kendyl Brooks. Brooks was hampered by a torn labrum in her hip for the final three months of last season, but she had surgery last April.
Tech backup guard Kaela Kinder is in the concussion protocol. She got hurt during an individual workout and has not played since September.
“Our depth will hurt us again this year,” Kenny Brooks said.