From player to coach in the blink of an eye: Gracie Brunel turns devastating knee injury into a new opportunity at Troup High

Published 8:00 am Saturday, December 9, 2023

Gracie Brunel never imagined her college basketball career ending with her slumped on the court with her knee practically in pieces, but that is how it went down for the LaGrange College class of ‘23 graduate. 

Brunel gritted through a partial tear of her ACL, playing the next game after she was diagnosed, which led to the end of her college basketball career.

“Once I blew my knee out, I had a choice to make, use my last year of eligibility and come back for another year or take another route,” Brunel said. “I decided that it would be best if I showed my love for the game by giving back to younger athletes. 

“It was a very hard decision because my family wanted me to play, but I needed at least a year to recover, and I didn’t want to spend all that time rehabbing and possibly not even getting back out there to play.”

When debating whether to return to college for one last go or pursue the next step in her basketball journey, she had conflicting emotions, but the more she thought about it the more it felt right to put playing the sport behind her and enter into coaching.

The first stop on her post-college coaching career? Troup High under coach Carla Thornton. It has been a natural fit in her first couple of months working with the Troup girls basketball team.

“Coach Carla has made the transition so much easier than I anticipated it being,” Brunel said. “She is a head coach that anybody would want to look up to.”

What originally started as an internship has quickly turned into a bigger role on Thornton’s staff than she expected.

“My goal was to do an internship with Carla while working on my master’s degree in teaching and coaching, but then once I started interning she told me that she wanted me to be an assistant coach,” Brunel said.

Coaching is in every fiber of her being. It is always where she envisioned herself after college, but it has been a quick ascent into the coaching ranks.

“I’ve learned that I love coaching more than I loved to play as surprising as that might sound,” Brunel said. “I love the game  and I’ve been playing it since I was five years old, but to see girls grow from what I’m telling them and showing them is so much more precious to see than when I was playing the game.”

While her playing days are now behind her, Brunel’s legacy at LaGrange College is cemented. She finished her career averaging 12.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 steals in 60 games with the Panthers. She helped LaGrange College to its second-most wins in the program’s NCAA Division III Era (Since 1999-2000) with 19 as a senior in 2022-23 while also making history as the program’s first conference academic All-District selection.

Her first stop in college to play basketball was at the College of Coastal Georgia, but it only seemed right that she would eventually find her way to LaGrange College. Both her parents — Rob and Melanie Brunel — played sports at the college in the 80’s and 90’s, but the LaGrange College connections do not stop there. Brunel’s grandfather attended the school in the 1960’s and her older sister McKenzie Brunel was a standout softball player for the Panthers.

“I transferred here because of basketball, but my family has been going to LaGrange College for generations now,” Brunel said. “It was just easy to come here because I already knew the college.”

At first, Brunel wanted to carve out her own legacy at a different college than the rest of her family, but something about LaGrange College always called her name and eventually she called LaGrange home. 

It turned out to be the best decision she ever made. The impact that coach Jasen Jonus and the Panthers have had on her is unquantifiable.

“He was amazing and was willing to do anything for me,” Brunel said. “He really pushed me to succeed, and I thought about staying and helping him as a player-coach, but he really pushed me to start my teaching and coaching career.”

Brunel has fallen in love with Troup High during her few months coaching and subbing at the school. It is a place she could see herself continuing to cut her teeth at coaching before heading out to pursue leading a program of her own.