By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When she graduated from Brown University after four years at the Ivy League school, McKenna Dale wasn’t ready for her college basketball career to end. She’d missed one season at Brown with a knee injury and another because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so she had two years of eligibility remaining.
“I always knew that I wanted to play at least another year,” Dale said last week. “It kind of felt that my collegiate journey wasn’t finished yet.”
Dale, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business at Brown, enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Virginia after the 2020-21 academic year. Her first season at the ACC school did not go as Dale hoped—the Cavaliers finished 5-22, after which Tina Thompson was dismissed as head coach—but her second has been more gratifying.
Under Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, the Wahoos are relevant again. Attrition has depleted Virginia’s roster as the season has gone on, but it’s clear that Agugua-Hamilton, who goes by Coach Mox, has the program headed in a positive direction.
“It’ll definitely be cool to think that I was a part of the beginning of that,” said Dale, who also starred in swimming at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Conn.
“Obviously, we’ve had difficulties with injuries and we’ve struggled a little bit during ACC play, but overall the support we’ve gotten from the community has been great, and our team culture has improved so much. Even though it was just Coach Mox’s first year, I think I’ll always look back and be super grateful that I got to be a part of that.”
Virginia’s regular-season home finale is Sunday afternoon. At 2 o’clock, UVA (15-11 overall, 4-11 ACC), hosts No. 9 Duke (22-4, 12-3), and Dale will be the lone player honored in a Senior Day ceremony before the game. Her cheering section at John Paul Jones Arena will include her parents, two of her three siblings, and a couple of her friends.
“I feel like with every program there’s going to be ups and downs,” Dale said, “but overall it’s been a good journey, and I’m really happy with the way things turned out. In these two years, I feel like you’ve seen this program grow a lot and this team grow a lot. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a player, and I’ve made some really great relationships that I probably wouldn’t have if I had stopped playing.”
This is also the Wahoos’ annual Play4Kay game. National Girls and Women in Sports Day will be celebrated at JPJ, too, with letterwinners from UVA’s first women’s varsity teams to be recognized at halftime.
Agugua-Hamilton, who came to Virginia from Missouri State last spring, knew nothing about Dale when she arrived. “But everything I know of her now, I definitely love. She’s a coach’s dream,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
A 6-foot guard, Dale has started eight games this season, and she’s averaging 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds. She scored 22 points against UNC Wilmington on Dec. 4, and twice she’s pulled down nine rebounds. As important as Dale’s contributions on the court, Agugua-Hamilton said, has been her attitude.
“From day one she bought in,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “She was all in and definitely wanted to defend the culture. She just wanted to work hard, be a team player and do what she could to effect winning.”
Dale, who was born in Arizona, later lived in Indiana and Connecticut before moving with her family to New Zealand, where her father is from. “We lived there for a couple of years,” Dale said, “and then we moved back [to the United States], and I was in Storrs from fifth grade onwards.”
Storrs is home to the University of Connecticut, whose women’s basketball program dominated the sport when Dale was growing up. “So I was always getting to go to games, meet and greets, and it was a really big deal in my town,” she said. “There’s not that much going on in Storrs, so women’s basketball was a huge thing, which is really cool.”
In UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, Dale is in a master’s program in higher education, with a focus on intercollegiate athletic administration. She could see herself working in an athletic department one day, but she’s unsure what she’ll do after earning her master’s this spring.
“I kind of go back and forth,” Dale said. “I really do want to travel, so I feel like playing overseas might be a good opportunity for me to do that. But I’m still trying to figure it out.”
In the fall of her senior year of high school, she left Storrs for a few weeks to play for the New Zealand Under-18 women’s team. A return to New Zealand is a possibility for Dale.
“I really want to live overseas at some point,” she said, “and since I’m a dual citizen, obviously that’s a good opportunity for me. I don’t know where life will take me, but I’ve definitely considered moving there for a little bit.”
She missed the 2018-19 season at Brown while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. One of her teammates at UVA, Mir McLean, suffered a similar injury in January.
“Mir is someone who’s gonna be positive no matter what,” Dale said. “Like every time I ask her how she’s doing, she’s going to say, ‘Good.’ So I’ve talked to her a little bit about [recovering from a torn ACL], but she’s someone who’s able to be positive on her own. She always kind of sees the bigger picture and can get the good out of any situation.”
When the coaching change occurred at UVA last spring, Dale experienced some uncertainty about the future of the program, but she said athletic director Carla Williams “really involved us and kept us updated with the process. And I trusted that she was going to do her best to make the best hire for us.
“Obviously, you never know with new coaches, but I was really optimistic about Coach Mox. She had so much success at Missouri State, and based off of what I had heard from everyone, and what Carla was saying, she had really great relationships with her players, which is something that was really important to me. So I was super positive and super optimistic about that.”
Her first conversation with Dale “wasn’t really much about basketball,” Agugua-Hamilton recalled. “It just kind of getting to know her background, where she’s from, and just knowing what her goals are and things like that. I just wanted to get behind the basketball person and learn about her, and I think that went a long way, because she felt like there was a genuine interest in getting to know her and building a relationship.”
Dale’s time on Grounds is coming to an end. What she’ll miss most when she leaves, she said, is “just being part of a team. I’ve been in college for a long time, six years now, and I’ve been part of a team obviously through high school and college, and I really like that you kind of have built-in friendships and people that you know are going to have your back regardless.”
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McKenna Dale - career snapshot