Kirby Burkholder, JMU Senior Guard
Nikki Newman, JMU Senior Forward
Angela Mickens, JMU Sophomore Guard
HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Kenny Brooks is turning to local stars to lead this year's edition of the James Madison University women's basketball team. The Dukes have made eight straight postseason appearances in either the NCAA tournament or WNIT. Madison has won at least 24 games in each of the last eight seasons and this year, once again, the Dukes are poised for another playoff run.
Nikki Newman, Kirby Burkholder and Angela Mickens, all former Valley District stars, are part of a JMU team picked as the preseason conference champions. According to Brooks though, this trio together was never a sure thing.
“Sometimes when you have local talent, you over-recruit them,” said Brooks at his weekly press conference. “I watched Kirby Burkholder and I was like, 'Eh, yeah, no... yeah.' Now I'm definitely 'Yeah!'. She can definitely do it.”
Burkholder, a former Tuner Ashby standout who leads the Dukes in scoring, was the CAA Preseason Player of the Year. Newman, a former high school teammate at TA, is a fifth year senior, playing nearly every position on the floor, while Mickens comes off the bench at the point guard position, providing an instant spark for the Dukes.
How each of the trio arrived as contributors has been different. The constant; however, has been the man who did the same thing 25 years earlier in the same purple and gold, their head coach.
“It's fun for me. Playing at Waynesboro High School and then coming to James Madison, I can relate to the pressures that they go through. Trying to perform, trying to get tickets for everybody, every little thing,” said Brooks. “To then watch them go out and be able to perform, it's been great.”
The adjustment period for each player has been different. Newman contributed early and saw the court often as a freshman. Burkholder played sparingly as a freshman and exploded as the team's standout scorer as a sophomore. Mickens, a former R.E. Lee star, played sparingly at the start of the season as a true freshman a year ago. By season's end, the tiny point guard (who is generously listed at 5-foot-7-inches tall) was a key cog as the Dukes advanced to the WNIT Quarterfinals.
So far this season, this trio has led the Dukes to two straight wins. Burkholder has continued her scoring tear piling in 24 points against Virginia and 23 more against Liberty. She also leads the team in rebounds with a double-double in both games this year, the only Duke to reach double digits in rebounds in either game.
“They have a chip on their shoulders, they go out and play and aren't afraid of anything. It doesn't matter who they're playing against,” said Brooks. “I think we can compete with anybody on the floor with those kids.”
This year that statement will be put to the test, with match-ups against Virginia, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Saint John's, Vanderbilt, North Carolina and a conference slate where the Dukes will be favorites each and every night on the floor.
“It's funny,” said Brooks, “We spend all this money recruiting. I travel the world, the United States to find kids and three of my best players came from my backyard. I could have saved a lot of money on recruiting.”
With one of the most talented teams Brooks has held at JMU, it's only fitting that at least a few of the players come from the Valley.
“We've got the Valley covered with our team,” said Brooks. “It's a plus. And we're not just taking them because they're local, we're taking them because they're really good players and they've proven it.”