By ALAN HOSKINS
While the highlight of her young coaching career, finishing sixth in the nation in Kansas City Kansas Community College’s first ever trip to the NJCAA Division II national volleyball tournament only whetted the appetite of head coach Mary Bruno.
“Now that we’ve been there, we want to do better next year,” says Bruno, who is in only her second year as head coach. “Reaching the national tournament and finishing sixth proved we can play with the nation’s elite at the community college level.”
Seeded No. 9 in the 16-team national tournament, the Blue Devils opened with a five-set win over No. 8 seeded Lincolnland Community College of Springfield, Ill., but then drew defending national champion and No. 1 ranked Jayhawk Conference champion Cowley in the quarterfinals where they fell in four sets.
“We knew going in that if we won in the first round we’d have to play unbeaten Cowley but looking back, we’d have liked to have seen how high we could have finished had we not drawn the No. 1 team in the second round,” says Bruno.
Bouncing back in the loser’s bracket from the Cowley loss, the Blue Devils defeated Iowa Central in a five-set thriller, winning the final set 15-13.
Their bid for fifth place, however, came up short in a three-set loss to Central Nebraska. Cowley also came up short in its bid for a second straight national title, losing in straight sets to Grand Rapids. Mich., in the finals.
For her efforts, 6-1 sophomore middle hitter Tara Van Beek of PawPaw, Ill., was named to the all-tournament team.
“It was a great accomplishment for Tara,” says Bruno. “She had a fantastic all-around tournament as did sophomore outside hitter Sarah Mertens.”
The tournament also opened a lot of doors for the sophomores looking to continue their volleyball careers. “It was a great trip and a great experience – and it got our sophomores some great looks from four-year recruiters,” says Bruno, whose Blue Devils finished 32-8 and were ranked eighth in the nation in blocks, 22nd in kills and 33rd in digs.
A return to the national tournament will mean replacing the best recruiting class in Blue Devil history. Eight sophomores who had a combined 52-22 record in their two years at KCKCC will be graduating including four who gained All-Jayhawk and All-District post-season honors.
Outside hitter Lisa Angello of Lansing was named first team All-District and second team All-Jayhawk; right side Chelsea Sheldon-Medina of Waukesha, Wis., first team All-District and All-Jayhawk honorable mention; Van Beek, second team All-District; and libero Leah Oehm, honorable mention All-District and All-Jayhawk.
Other losses will include Mertens, a 5-10 outside hitter from Lincoln, Neb.; setter Jennie Kinsella of St. James Academy; outside hitter Courtney Gunnels of Piper; and middle hitter Amber Fraser of Des Moines, Iowa. None of the sophomores have yet signed at four-year institutions.
However, the cupboard will not be left entirely bare. Kenya Alexander, a 6-4 shot-blocking middle hitter from Wyandotte High School, will return after making a sweep of top post-season honors. Earning first team berths on both the All-Jayhawk and All-District teams. Alexander was named Jayhawk Conference Freshman of the Year and ranked 14th in the nation in blocks with 1.44 per set.
Other returnees include defensive specialist Rachel Replogle of Omaha and a pair of redshirt transfers, 6-3 outside hitter Jessica Thompson and 5-11 right side Jade Young.
“We have three very good recruits already signed so we’re still looking for two or three more positions,” says Bruno, who is hot on the recruiting trail.
An outstanding player in her own right, Bruno was home schooled and played only club volleyball in her pre-collegiate days.
She did play two years at Avila but six knee surgeries ended her career and she finished her last two years of college at Rockhurst. In addition to her KCKCC coaching duties, she’s also an assistant coach for a top 18-year-old club team.
PHOTO: Highlighted by a sixth place finish in the Division II national tournament, Kansas City Kansas Community College’s sophomore class of (from left) Leah Oehm, Amber Fraser, Lisa Angello, Chelsea Sheldon-Medina, Courtney Gunnels, Tara Van Beek, Sarah Mertens ands and Jennie Kinsella will go down as the best in history. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)