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Kitley and King – Catching up with Two of Hokie Nation’s favorite….Dads

By Rich Luttenberger | July 09
Cover Liz Ralph Cayla Tom by Elda
Photo credit: Elda King

With Father’s Day not too distant in the rear-view mirror, what better time is there to take another look at the amazing careers of two of the most beloved Virginia Tech women’s basketball players, Liz Kitley and Cayla King – but through their fathers’ eyes.

Ralph Kitley and Tom King have known each other for many years, first meeting on the pickup basketball courts a quarter of a century ago.  But could they have possibly known their relationship – and their daughters – would take them to places they never imagined?

Liz and Cayla are two extremely important parts of Virginia Tech’s meteoric rise to national prominence in women’s basketball. Their fathers, Ralph and Tom, weighed in on their own thoughts and experiences of that incredible ride.

1 Ralph Tom Seattle
Photo credit: Elda King

Foundations Built in High School

Most Hokie fans know that Liz Kitley and Cayla King were teammates before coming to Blacksburg.  They played AAU basketball together.  They won two high school state championships together. That might not have happened, though, had Tom King not been so persistent.

Prior to ninth grade, Liz was very involved in travel softball.  When she got to high school, Tom, who was an assistant basketball coach, saw her future on the hardwood and not the diamond.

“He kept pushing and encouraging her to switch over to the AAU team with Cayla,” Ralph Kitley said, adding that the colleges began to notice Liz after that freshman year.

This attention was never a distraction from the goals of the team, though.  Both Liz and Cayla have always been modest, team-first players.  That mentality was especially emphasized during their AAU years.

“If you looked at our scorebooks, we didn’t even tally up the points,” said Tom, who was an assistant coach on that AAU team. He said that it didn’t matter to the coaches or players who scored what.  The focus was on how the team did and if the individuals did their jobs.

2 Liz Cayla NW Guilford Andrew Krech News and Record
Photo credit: Andrew Krech News and Record

This humble, team-oriented persona stayed with both Liz and Cayla throughout their years in Blacksburg.  For Liz, she was one of the most decorated players in ACC women’s basketball history but still focused on her team first. 

Probably because of this modesty, Ralph did not even know the extent of his own daughter’s accolades.  “I didn’t see 90% of any of her physical awards, trophies and plaques that she got until a few months ago when they were retrieved from Coach Brooks’ office,” he noted.  Five years in Blacksburg and he never even saw most of those awards!

Choosing Virginia Tech

The decision to play basketball at Virginia Tech was not an easy one for either Liz or Cayla.  Both girls were recruited heavily and had a lot of offers. However, the way they both ended at the same decision seems a little like fate was intervening.

For Cayla, she tore her ACL after her sophomore year and later had to deal with a significant ankle injury.  Tom recalled how some schools backed off, but Virginia Tech did not.  “Coach Brooks was really good with that whole period in her life, which was a real tough time for her.”

Tom and Cayla talked a lot about her offers, and Virginia Tech checked all the boxes they had established together.  She felt very comfortable with Coach Brooks and she liked the campus, which was within her desired radius, so she committed to Tech.  “I had a pretty strong feeling that was where she was going to go,” Tom admitted.

Like Cayla, Liz also received a lot of support from her father in the decision process.  Ralph played ACC basketball at Wake Forest, but he made sure his role was kept as facilitator, allowing Liz to make her own choices. “It was hers to make,” Ralph said of her commitment, “because she was the one who was going to live with the decision.” 

Liz also connected early with Coach Brooks, which helped her sort through the offers.  “The relationship she built with Coach Brooks was tremendous and went over and beyond any other school that recruited her,” Ralph noted.

Brooks didn’t just recruit Liz, he also recruited her sister Raven, who has special needs.  This made a tremendous impact on both Liz and Ralph.  Whenever they went to Virginia Tech, Raven was also treated like a recruit. “Raven just adored Coach Brooks,” Ralph said.  “Elizabeth saw that and felt that, and it was special for her to see that.”

“She wanted to do her own thing, to blaze her own trail”

— Ralph Kitley about his daughter’s college decision

The Transition to ACC Basketball

The transition from high school basketball to the ACC was different for the two girls.  Liz quickly  found her way into a lineup that needed a post player and she made an immediate impact, scoring 27 points in her first game in a Hokie uniform. 

It was indeed a proud moment for Ralph, who remembered talking to Coach Brooks after that first game. He told the coach, “My career high in college was 22 points and she blew that away in her first game.” (To which he remembers Brooks prophetically replying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”)

However, as a parent,  Ralph came into the season without expectation.  “While I knew the ceiling could be high in terms of what coaches were telling me (in the recruiting process), you just don’t know exactly what to expect when it comes time to roll the balls out.” 

Coach Brooks did not make any promises in terms of playing time, but Ralph knew that Liz was an extremely hard worker.  He also knew that the coaching staff at Virginia Tech was willing to make the investment in his daughter. “Coach Brooks had communicated that if she put in the work he would put in the work, and they would work to develop her.”

“It turned out well,” he reflected.  What an understatement!

Cayla had her own set of unique challenges in making the jump to ACC basketball.  When she arrived in Blacksburg, she was still recovering from a severe ankle injury that forced her to miss most of her senior season of high school. 

She was also facing a position change.  A point guard for most of her life, her injuries slowed her down a bit, and, according to her father, she had to reinvent herself.

“It was hard.  Freshman year was really hard,” Tom admitted.  “She was frustrated.  She wasn’t able to do what she used to do on the basketball court.”

Like so many other times in life, though, adversity presented opportunity.  Coach Brooks did not give up on her.  Yes, he changed her role, but he also stuck with her and turned her into the player he was looking for.  “She had to develop, and she had to figure out what he wanted out of her,” Tom said. “She worked really hard at it, and he gave her that opportunity.”

“In today’s world a lot of coaches would’ve written her off, and he didn’t…He put her in a position to succeed or fail, and she wound up being a player that he trusted over time.”

— Tom King on Kenny Brooks’ trust in his daughter Cayla

The transition from coach to parent/fan was also an adjustment for Tom King.  Having coached his daughter’s teams for so many years, he instinctively watched her that first season through the eyes of a coach.  Thus, post-game conversations with his daughter were usually centered around her play.

“I knew what she could do in the past, and she wasn’t doing it,” he remembered, wondering if her struggles were physical from the injuries, or mental from the position change, or both.  “There were times when I would call her out and she’d get upset.”

This was a bumpy road.  In time, though, Tom figured out what his daughter needed most and made a change.  “This isn’t working,” he realized.  “I’m just gonna give you a hug when you’re down and pat you on the back when you’re doing good, and I’m just going to let Coach Brooks take care of the basketball part.”

“At some point I just became her dad and dropped the coaching title,” Tom said.  “We didn’t talk much about what she needed to do or what I thought she needed to do. It was more what’s coach asking you to do and what are you doing to get there.”

It wasn’t an overnight process, but it was an important part of Cayla’s growth as an athlete.  She did reinvent herself, becoming a three-point shooter as well as a defensive specialist.  From knocking down seven three-pointers in a game to being asked to guard the nation's best player Caitlin Clark to perfectly executing inbounds passes on game winning plays, Cayla King was going to do her best in any role that was given to her.

3 King Family Reg Final win by Cayla
Photo provided by Cayla King

Managing the Travel

In all of the thrill and excitement of big-time college sports, one aspect that often garners little attention is the challenge presented to parents to attend the games of their children.  This is especially difficult with basketball families, as games are usually played twice a week, including regular weeknights.

Fortunately, for the Kitleys and Kings, they live in the heart of ACC country, so most games were within a few hours’ drive, including Blacksburg.  Also, both Ralph Kitley and Tom King were able to benefit from opportunities in their employment that allowed them to attend more games.

For Ralph, a high school principal who had been in education for thirty years, it took a year of navigating the work-travel conflicts before he finally decided to retire.  He was constantly divided between the obligations of his school and the desire to see his daughter play ACC basketball in person.  This was compounded by the internal struggles that came with missing either of those.  So he retired in March of 2020 to, as he put it, “continue chasing Virginia Tech women’s basketball around.”

Tom King’s conflict was a little more singular in its resolution.  During Cayla’s freshmen year, he was with friends on an annual golf trip and thus had to watch one of her games on television.  He couldn’t help but think, “I’m in the wrong spot.  I should be there.”

From that point forward, he prioritized the basketball trips that were reasonable drives.  With a career in financial planning, Tom had the ability to work remotely, which helped greatly in his ability to travel. As the years went on, those travels also included further destinations like Louisville, Notre Dame, and Florida State. And of course the NCAA tournament.

 “It was a no-brainer,” he said of the decision to travel so much.  “Before you know it, it’s over.” 

“There was no place else I’d rather be.  Not even close.”

— Tom King on his desire to attend his daughter’s games

Another aspect of the travel that helped the men was the relationship they had with each other and the ability to share their experiences.  Being friends for so long, and being basketball dads, it was not uncommon for Tom and Ralph to talk at length after games. 

“On the two-hour drive home we’d be on the phone for an hour, recapping the game,” Tom admitted.

For any sports fans who have ever gone on a road trip, they know that talking sports to a friend is an easy way to make driving time fly by!

4 Tom Ralph at FSU
Photo by Elda King

Becoming Part of Hokie Nation

Those close to Virginia Tech know what it means to be a Hokie.  It is almost impossible to put it into words, but if you are a Hokie, you know exactly what I am talking about.  The culture.  The family. The community.  The bond.

For Tom King, his introduction into this community was, as he joked, like joining a cult.  Growing up in Queens, New York, he recalled how he had no prior exposure to this way of life as a kid.  “When you’re from New York, the whole college experience at a big-time school just doesn’t exist.”

He went to plenty of NFL games to watch the Giants and Jets, but he had never witnessed the pageantry of a college football game until he came to Blacksburg.  “Oh my God, this place is insane,” he said of that first encounter at Lane Stadium.

The community vibe was everywhere.  While vacationing at the beach not too long ago and wearing a Virginia Tech hat, Tom recalled how a family stopped to say hello because of his headwear.  That hello turned into a half hour conversation. “You don’t get that in New York,” he laughed. 

It wasn’t uncommon for the Kings and Kitleys to meet plenty of fans when they went out to dinner after games.  People often came up to them, said hi, took photos, and wished them well. 

This support and this love of the school made a lasting impression on the elder King. He was meeting boosters, talking to fans, developing relationships.  He formed a tight bond with Hokie Nation.

“People are all in,” he noted. “It was fun to watch. And the way they treated my kid was amazing.” 

“It was a good place to drive away from knowing your kid was there.”

— Tom King

Ralph Kitley’s sentiments were similar.  He took it a step further in revealing how the basketball families were able to build their own strong relationships with each other through their shared experiences.  They were like a mini-Hokie Nation within the larger fanbase.

“It’s a camaraderie that’s hard to replicate,” said Ralph.  The experience was unique for them, especially when the team was so successful these past two years.  “It’s an amazing feeling that you can share with these folks that really nobody else can relate to.  It’s special.”

5 Kitley family senior night VT athletics
Photo credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

Building the Fanbase

The popularity explosion of the Virginia Tech women’s basketball program was definitely tied to the team’s success. However, the media presence of the girls further amplified the effect.  Specifically, the Queens of Cassell podcast with Liz and Georgia Amoore (and appearances by Cayla) helped bring the program to the fans.  

As a father, Ralph Kitley was proud to see how the off-court activities of his daughter helped build a fanbase.  He liked how the podcast showed a side of the girls that was relatable.  They talked about anything: food or dogs or shopping and then a little bit of basketball. It brought the players and their personalities into people’s homes and revealed similar interests.

Intentional or not, this podcast – and the team’s success – made Liz and Georgia and Cayla the most popular athletes on campus and the women’s basketball team one of the most popular teams.  “The benefits of having done it really took off and exploded and really contributed to their success in terms of building that fanbase,” Ralph said about the podcast. 

“I was proud to see that,” he said.  “That was another extension of them utilizing what they had done on the court in terms of team accomplishments to putting that out there in the media in a way that humanized them.” 

6 Ralph and liz Woody Marshall News and Record
Photo credit: Woody Marshall News and Record

Virginia Tech women’s basketball blew up as a spectator sport.  As freshmen, Liz and Cayla played in front of scant crowds of a thousand or so.  This year, there were numerous sellouts at home.  People camped out to get into the games, there were lines down the street. ESPN Gameday came to Cassell Coliseum for the first time ever. 

“Everyone’s expectations changed,” Tom King said.  “They became one of the best shows in town.” 

“Just seeing the fanbase grow and the support of Virginia Tech women’s basketball grow over the last three years and to know that our girls were a part of it, and to see people caring about Virginia Tech women’s basketball…that was probably the most fulfilling for me,” admitted Ralph.

“These kids, how they worked and what they achieved has just unified this fanbase and got people caring deeply about Virginia Tech women’s basketball”

— Ralph Kitley

The success of the women’s team over the past few years is unmatched in Hokie history – for any basketball team in maroon and orange.   From buzzer beaters (at home and on the road) to ACC regular season and tournament championships to the Final Four, this team set records, both individual and as a squad, and stands as one that will be remembered for years to come.

Embedded in the big accomplishments were the little things that made the ride even more special.  For Tom King, winning the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum stood out as the best single memory. 

When the kids were young (growing up in the Greensboro area), Cayla and Liz went to that event regularly and Tom chaperoned the trips.  They even attended tournament games when Cayla’s cousin played there. “To watch them have the confetti drop on them was pretty cool,” he said of seeing these grown kids now celebrating on that same floor. 

7 Tom Cayla ACC trophy VT athletics
Photo credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

What’s Next?

For Cayla King, the path moving forward is a little unclear right now.  According to her father, she is strongly considering the option to play basketball overseas, a decision he supports.  “I want her to relax and go play ball and have some fun,” Tom said. 

After her playing days end, Cayla’s two Virginia Tech degrees and a career on the hardwood will present plenty of choices for her.  She could use those degrees to find a job or she could explore coaching.   “I think she found out that she really likes basketball,” Tom said.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to make a career out of it.”

For Liz Kitley, the road is a little more definitive.  For now, at least.  A second-round pick in the WNBA draft this past April, she was drafted 24th overall by the Las Vegas Aces.  She is in Vegas now, rehabbing her ACL injury at the Aces’ facilities. 

Seeing your child drafted into a professional sports league has to result in immense pride for any parent.  It obviously was that and more for Ralph Kitley, who really did not know what to expect after his daughter’s ACL injury from March.  “I let go of any expectations I had,” he confessed, indicating that he didn’t want any unrealistic expectations that could lead to letdown.

But he was happy that she was still invited to New York City and was included in the pre-draft events despite the injury, which put her draft stock in question.  And then she was selected by the Aces.

“When her name was called, it was just a great moment, and to see the smile on her face just meant so much to me,” he said.

He is confident that she will overcome her injury.  Liz tore the ACL in her other knee in high school, and look what she achieved in her college career.

Ralph is also pleased with the franchise that selected Liz.  He likes their facilities and believes that Las Vegas is making a significant investment in her recovery. 

According to Ralph, his daughter is with the team now, doing everything she is able to do, and she feels like she is part of the team.  “She’s in good hands, and we feel good about where she is,” he said.

“We feel like they really have her best interests at heart.”

— Ralph Kitley on the Las Vegas Aces and their focus on his daughter’s recovery

Lasting Legacy

So much has changed since Liz Kitley and Cayla King first stepped on campus as freshmen in 2019.  The achievements, the accolades, the records, the crowds, the rise of a program.

But what did not change was the hard work of these two young women.  Nor their effort, their determination, their humility, their class.  They stayed at the same school and played for the same coach for five years.  They were the cornerstones of this amazing stretch of success.

They are the perfect pair to shoulder the responsibilities that come with being ambassadors of the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team these past few years.  They are tremendous representatives of the program and of the school.

This is not lost on their fathers.

“I always love it when I hear people talk about Elizabeth and Cayla and how they’ve been such great representatives of Virginia Tech.  That makes me really proud,” Ralph Kitley reflected.

The Kitleys and Kings aren’t just proud, they’re thankful.

“Virginia Tech, the community, the school, the basketball program, the athletic department have been nothing but wonderful to Elizabeth.  We’ll always be indebted to them for how they supported her and our family,” Ralph said.

Tom King added, “We’re a Hokie family now. They treated my daughter right and they treated us right.”

“It’s been one helluva wild and fun ride.  And I’m a proud Hokie parent”

— Ralph Kitley

The dads might be thankful, but that sentiment is widely shared by the fanbase.  We adored Liz and Cayla, and we are extremely grateful for what they and their teammates did for Virginia Tech. 

They brought a program to national prominence. They won championships.  They reached the Final Four for the first time in school history for any basketball team. 

They allowed us to connect with them.  They made their sport so much fun to watch. They packed Cassell.  They inspired countless little girls to want to play sports.

And they did all this with nothing but grace and class and dignity.

We are thankful.  We appreciate all their hard work and sacrifice.  We love the pride and passion that accompanied their success.  And we are proud that they – and their families – will always be Hokies.

It’s not a cult.  It’s just who we are. 

8 All Four but two by two
Photo credit: Liz Kitley and Cayla King
Screenshot 2023 12 23 at 12 20 07 PM

Born in the Bronx but otherwise raised in northern New Jersey, my Hokie life began in the fall of 1989. I walked on to the baseball team and spent a year and a half as a redshirt catcher. After my stint with the baseball team ended, I finished my time at Tech on the ice hockey team, playing Hokie hockey as a club sport. Despite this pursuit of other sporting interests, my passion became Tech football, and I have been a die hard fan ever since.

When I’m not obsessing over Hokie sports, I enjoy running, traveling, and fostering dogs. And of course, spending time with my wife and three kids. My “real job” is as a high school English teacher, where I have worked for over a quarter of a century (and everyone in the building knows where Mr. Lutt went to school). My daughter is now a Hokie - as if I needed another reason to make the long drive to Blacksburg!

I started my sports writing journey with Gridiron Heroics, covering Virginia Tech football and some college sports news. But I’m excited to join the Sons of Saturday now and I look forward to adding content through my story-telling abilities.

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