Staying grounded: William Monroe basketball standout Brunelle stays humble despite national attention

William Monroe's Sam Brunelle is ESPN's top-ranked high school junior girls basketball player in the country. Rich Cooley/Daily

William Monroe standout Sam Brunelle has had all the top colleges in the country salivating over the opportunity to sign her. She is ESPN’s top-ranked junior high school player in the country and has been on two U.S. national teams. But despite all of the attention placed on her, Brunelle has managed to stay humble.

William Monroe coach Jess Stafford said much of Brunelle’s ability to stay grounded comes from her family and is just the core of who she is.

“You’ve got to be a competitor, and you’ve got to have that fierce killer intensity,” Stafford said. “But when the gloves come off, she’s a goofy 16-year-old kid who just likes to enjoy the game of basketball and all that it’s brought her.”

During the fall most high school basketball players are honing their games to get ready for the upcoming season. Brunelle not only did that this past off season, but also something very special for a community over 1,300 miles away.

In October, Brunelle held a basketball clinic at William Monroe High School for area youths as well as a silent auction. She  raised over $4,000, which went to the Houston Independent School District to help with damage caused by Hurricane Harvey last fall.

“I’ve always wanted to do clinics for kids and just young talents coming up,” Brunelle said. “And I had a friend, a former USA teammate who was actually from the Houston area and they got hit. And I was like why not put this all together and do it for a good cause.

“I love giving back, it’s one of my favorite things to do and working with little kids in general. I love working with little kids.”

Brunelle said the event was a big success and she hopes it had a really positive effect on the kids.

“A lot of kids didn’t know what they were doing it for,” Brunelle said. “And when they realized (what it was for) I think it really changed a lot of lives.”

Brunelle was always around basketball from a young age. Her mother Katie was a basketball coach at Orange County High School for a number of years.

Brunelle said that when she was in kindergarten her mother took the job as athletic director at William Monroe, where she is now the principal.

The 6-foot-2 Brunelle said that she was always taller than everyone else as a kid, but it wasn’t until 5th grade where she began to realize her potential.

“I played for a really great travel team — Boo Williams — and they pulled me up for a Nike showcase tournament,” Brunelle said. “And I got my first college letters — Division 1. So ever since then my dream changed from going D-3 like my mom did, to Division 1 possibly.”

Since then Brunelle’s game has continued to rise as has her college stock.

Stafford became William Monroe’s coach before Brunelle’s eighth-grade year. Stafford said that Phil Lamb stepped down as head coach so that Stafford could work with Brunelle.

“He actually kind of handed me the keys, so to speak, because he knew he wasn’t going to be able to fully give her everything that she was going to need,” Stafford said. “But at the time I don’t think anyone really realized what that was going to encompass. You knew you had a kid with a lot of talent. You knew you had a kid that worked incredibly hard, but no one could predict the kind of circus that it turned into.”

Stafford said that it’s very important that she, Brunelle and Brunelle’s family are on the same page and that nothing is done to hurt the team.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” Stafford said. “To make sure that we find the correct balance to make sure that she gets what she needs as an individual, but also that the team gets exactly what it needs as well. And I think through the course of the process we’ve all kind of matured in it, and your kind of seeing the fruits of that labor now.”

Stafford said that many top college coaches have come to see Brunelle play. Last year University of Maryland coach Brenda Frese came to Strasburg High School to see Brunelle play against the Rams. University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma came to Central High School last year to see Brunelle’s game against the Falcons. Stafford said Auriemma, who has led the Huskies to 11 national championships, has come to some of William Monroe’s practices over the last few years.

Two years ago, Brunelle was part of the USA U17 national women’s basketball team that went to Spain. Then last summer, Brunelle was a captain on the USA U16 national women’s basketball team, which won the gold medal in Argentina.

“That’s just so surreal,” Brunelle said. “It’s something you dream about doing and then when the opportunity came I was in great hopes. It was really cool to be able to have that experience. To be able to visit five countries within two or three years is unbelievable and is something that I didn’t think I would be able to do this quick, this soon in my life.

“It’s just really cool to see the different cultures around the world and how other people live, and how thankful you are to be where you are.”

On the court this season Brunelle’s game is continuing to shine for the Dragons. She’s helped lead William Monroe to a 21-0 record.

Brunelle recently accomplished a special achievement, reaching 1,000 rebounds.

“A thousand rebounds is a lot more difficult than a thousand points only because a rebound is worth one and points are worth two and three,” Brunelle said. “So to be able to do that is really cool, I believe. And when I got it I didn’t know I got it until after the game. I had completely forgotten about it and coach (Stafford) was like ‘you got your thousandth’ and I was like ‘oh my gosh.’ It was crazy.”

Brunelle is averaging 32 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals per game this season. She is shooting 52 percent from the floor, including 35 percent from 3-point range. She is also shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line.

Brunelle said she’s really improved on her shot selection this season. Stafford said they’ve also worked hard on Brunelle’s leadership skills as well and she’s done a great job leading a young team.

While she’s a strong scorer, Brunelle said she enjoys passing the ball just as much as scoring.

“I love to pass a lot,” Brunelle said. “And sometimes you’ll notice when I play, I might be a little too unselfish at times. But I just love getting my teammates the ball and getting them open as well.

“It’s not all about me. I just try and do my best to distribute the ball a lot.”

Brunelle has 1,874 career points and 1,071 career rebounds.

The Dragons have a young squad this season, with no seniors, five freshman and three sophomores.

William Monroe will be the top seed in the Region 3B tournament, which starts Friday.

“We’re really young and I think we have surprised so many people,” Brunelle said. “We might have surprised ourselves, because we didn’t really know what was going to happen. But we’ve come together and we are great teammates to each other, great chemistry. We play within the flow of the game. It’s all clicking this year. It’s really great.”

Brunelle still has one big decision to make at some point — which college to choose. On Jan. 10, Brunelle narrowed her college choices to nine schools: University of Virginia, UConn, University of Kentucky, Wake Forest, Maryland, North Carolina State University, University of South Carolina, Duke University and Notre Dame.

Brunelle said she has no time table for making her decision, and that while the recruiting process has been tough at times she’s trying to enjoy it as much as possible.

“It’s a blessing, because not many kids get to have the opportunities I’ve had and to have these kind of offers — full ride offers to go to college,” Brunelle said. “At times it can get a little stressful, and that’s for every recruit that’s getting recruited like I am. It’s just hard to come down to one choice in the end. But it’s really a blessing.”