by Alan Hoskins
KCKCC sports information director
It is not by accident that Kansas City Kansas Community College is headed for the NJCAA National Division II volleyball tournament for the second time in three years.
It will be hard to find any of the other 15 teams in the national tourney better prepared than the way coach Mary Bruno gets the Lady Blue Devils ready for play, spending about 80 percent of their practice time on fundamentals and individual instruction – far more time than the average team.
“Not even close,” said sophomore Kailee Dudley, a July transfer from Butler County.
“Fundamentals every day and we watch film to make sure we’re prepared 100 percent every day,” added sophomore co-captain Blair Russell and the Jayhawk Conference’s Player of the Year.
“It’s reinforcing the correct form,” said Bruno, the architect of KCKCC’s Region N championship team and Jayhawk Co-Coach of the Year. “At the very beginning we train our players in our style of how we do things but at the end of a long season, there’s a tendency for some of the form to get lost so we need to have them revert back to what they did in the past.”
Players are assigned work stations by position.
“We have a box to stand on to work on form for hitting and an Accuspike where the ball is stationary and the focus is on the approach and arm swing,” Bruno said. “The setters work on consistency with a lot of repetitions. We also work on defense with a lot of reps and serving positions.”
The Blue Devils (29-9) also prepared by playing a demanding schedule, playing eight of the other 15 teams in the national tourney including No. 1 Parkland and No. 2 Central Nebraska along with five Division I powers, No. 1 Iowa Western, Missouri State, Indian Hills, Palm Beach State and College of Jacksonville.
“It definitely prepared us to be where we are at the end of the season,” Bruno said.
Seeded No. 7, KCKCC opens up national tourney play Thursday at 11 a.m. against No. 10 Glendale, Ariz., at Phoenix College. A win would most likely set up a third meeting with No. 2 Central Nebraska at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. All games will be streamed and can be seen by going to the NJCAA website and clicking on Division II national tournament.
At the ultimate foundation of the Blue Devil success, however, has been Bruno and her coaching staff of her mother, Dee Bruno, and Paloma Juarez, and managers Cory Roberts, Francelle Gonzalez and Catherine Bruno. Gonzalez, in fact, was instrumental in finding one of the Blue Devil freshmen, Kimberly Martinez.
At the backbone of the success is the fact that Bruno makes the game fun and that the mutual respect goes far beyond what happens on the court.
“I just love her,” said co-captain Lily Thornberg. “She has a real open door policy and we can come in and talk to her about anything and yet she still pushes on the court. She knows what we’re capable of and is not afraid to push us out of our comfort zone.”
One of Thornberg’s most effective moves is “dumping” the ball left-handed just over the net before blockers can react.
“I was doing it with my right hand and getting a lot of net violations so coach Dee (Bruno) spent last year working with me and teaching me when to do it,” Thornberg said.
“She’s a great coach,” echoed Russell. “When I came here I was just athletic. She took my athleticism and made me technically sound. After I tore up my shoulder I was not sure I wanted to play but I’m so glad I did.”
Andrea Aparicio, a native of Puerto Rico who was named Libero of the Year for her defensive play, credits Bruno for helping her make the transition to U.S. college volleyball.
“She takes time to explain what you’re doing and what you need to do in different parts of the game,” Aparicio said.
If there’s an Achilles heel for the Blue Devils is something that can’t be coached, a lack of size. No starter is over 5-foot-11 although 6-2 Saint Mary transfer Peyton Pender sees extended playing time.
Bruno, however, dismisses it as a concern.
“No,” she said. “Nothing we can do for it now and we’ve already played most of the teams.”
Bruno led KCKCC to a sixth place finish in the Blue Devils first ever appearance in the NJCAA national tourney in 2012, earning District N Coach of the Year honors while finishing runnerup for Jayhawk Coach of the Year.