Corps of Cadets women win Flyin’ Irish basketball tournament
With the 50th anniversary of women in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets approaching next semester, a group of women in the corps has given the cadet regiment yet another reason to celebrate.
These cadets weren’t in the standard wool uniforms, and their drill in the early morning hours looked a little bit different. Much like a military unit marching, they worked in unison, but noticeably missing were the sounds of heels hitting pavement and the Skipper firing. Instead, a bouncing basketball and scrambling feet echoed during their drill on the court, a drill that has paid off for three years running.
On Feb. 12, the corps’ women’s basketball team won the 37th annual Flying’ Irish tournament at Notre Dame, a national basketball competition for cadets and ROTC units. The bracketed tournament for both men’s and women’s teams started in 1985 and hosts more than 500 students from over 50 schools.
This wasn’t the team’s first win in the Flyin’ Irish tournament – Virginia Tech has won the last three tournaments, going back to 2020. The tournament was canceled in 2021 because of the pandemic.
Preparation for this year’s tournament started late in the fall semester and daily 5:30 a.m. practices kicked off with the start of the spring semester. Those early practices for the female cadets focused heavily on conditioning and cohesive time on the court.
“In the first few weeks, there was a lot of running. The guys were taught plays, but since we are all so close, we knew how to play together,” said Cadet Stephanie Valencic, a public health major in the Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and a senior in the Corps of Cadets Citizen-Leader Track. Valencic served as a team captain along with Cadet Lauren Gravette, a senior in Naval ROTC majoring in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience in the College of Science.
“For us, it was more defense and just giving it our all,” said Gravette.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Lance Jones, the senior enlisted advisor for the corps' 4th Battalion, serves as the coach each year for both the men and women cadet teams. His job within the corps isn’t coaching a basketball team, but mentoring cadets in his battalion. He volunteered extra time to prepare both cadet teams for the tournament, and his passion for coaching showed.
“He lives and breathes this tournament. He really cares about us. He invests so much time and wants to be there with us,” said Gravette.
After traveling overnight Thursday and Friday morning to Indiana in mid-February, the team played its first game on Friday evening followed by four games on Saturday. There was not much time during the tournament for players to socialize with the 15 other female teams or the 32 male teams. As team captains, it was up to Gravette and Valencic to register the team and keep players on schedule during the fast-paced tournament.
“Being a team captain was a different experience. It was cool seeing the different side of the tournament, all the organizational stuff and the paperwork. I had the schedule memorized,” Valencic said.
The corps' women's team beat competitors from Ohio State and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign early in the tournament, then triumphed over the University of Pittsburgh. The cadets earned the No. 2 seed in the quarterfinals and beat the University of Kentucky, advancing to the semifinals where Virginia Tech beat Notre Dame’s Army ROTC team.
The only women’s team left in the tournament was Notre Dame’s Navy and Air Force ROTC team and Notre Dame met the Virginia Tech women early on Feb 12. Virginia Tech won, 35-13.
The corps’ men’s team fought into the semifinals but fell to Washington University.
As seniors on the team looking back, Valencic and Gravette realize this is the end of a fun ride for those graduating this year. “After we won, I knew this was probably the last time I was going to play an organized game of basketball. My sister and I played basketball all through high school. It put things into perspective. It was sad and bittersweet,” said Gravette.
Valencic added, “It’s definitely bittersweet because we have gotten so close, but we ended it in a good way.”
In the end, the prize was more than a trophy for the women’s team. “These ladies made sacrifices. Their tenacity on and off the court created a sisterhood that will last for the rest of their lives,” said Jones.