Friday, November 14, 2014

KCKCC Volleyball 'family" off to nationals

KCKCC Sports Information Director

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- It is a family not quite like any other – a family assembled from Alaska on the West, Puerto Rico on East, Michigan to the North and Texas to the South and several Kansas communities in between.

Officially, it’s the national tournament-bound Kansas City Kansas Community College volleyball team but to head coach Mary Bruno, her staff and the 14-member Blue Devil squad its far more than just a team.

“KCKCC volleyball is family,” says Bruno. “We’re always together, spending time with the same focus. Everyone gets along and enjoys each other so much. It’s an absolute joy to coach these girls. I look forward every day to coming to practice with them and am so proud of them.”

“I consider them all my sisters,” says co-captain Lily Thornberg. “We’ve really grown together. In Florida, we stayed at a big house together and had family dinners and went to the beach together. We’ve really bonded.”

The Blue Devils will open tournament play Thursday at 11 a.m. against Glendale, Ariz., at Phoenix College in Phoenix. All games will be streamed in the NJCAA website by clicking on national tournaments.

It’s a family put together from far distance places. Sophomore defensive specialist Lily Cullers came to KCKCC from Palmer, Alaska, after being discovered on a recruiting website. The same for 6-2 freshman outside hitter Cecelia Augustine of Ypsilanti, Mich. Both came to the KCKCC campus for a visit, liked what they saw and signed.

Four Blue Devils are from Puerto Rico. Libero of the Year Andrea Aparicio and Jayhawk second team selection Jasdel Gonzalez were discovered on a recruiting trip taken by Bruno (Dee Bruno) and her mother in December of 2012. Freshman Kimberly Martinez was discovered by manager Franchelle Gonzalez (sister of Jasdel) while living in Puerto Rico. The fourth, Junelie Irizarry, had moved to Papillion, Neb., when discovered by the KCKCC staff.

“Coach Mary and Coach Dee came to Puerto Rico for a recruiting tournament for American coaches and we kept talking by e-mail and phone and they offered the best,” says Aparicio, who arrived in the U.S. for the first time in July of 2013. “First it was hard but then I started adapting.” Fluent in English, Aparicio hopes to earn an AA next spring and play two more years in the U.S. before returning home.

Blair Russell, the Jayhawk Conference’s Most Valuable Player this year, was a three-sport star at Marysville, Kan., but started her volleyball career at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Tex. “I tore up my shoulder my first semester so I came back,” says Russell. “I knew the Bruno’s because my sister (Riley Russell) played here. I called Mary and she let me transfer. I am so thankful. After I tore my shoulder I was not sure I wanted to play but I’m so glad. Otherwise I would not be here with my teammates.”

The remainder of the squad is all from Kansas. Sophomores Lily Thornberg and Peyton Pender, a transfer from Saint Mary, are both from Junction City. Kailee Dudley, a summer transfer from Butler County, went to high school at Lawrence Free State, while soph Carlyn Walsh attended Wichita Northwest. The three other freshmen are from Leavenworth (Allyssa Lutgen), Douglas (Janelle Fowler) and KCK’s Bishop Ward (Lexi Nick).

Four Blue Devils – all sophomores – finished among the national leaders in statistics. Thornberg, who was named Co-Setter of the Year, and No. 5 in assists with 10.74 per set, was on Bruno’s wish list early.

“Mary saw me in a traveling tournament my junior year and kind of followed me,” says Thornberg. “It was between here and Hutchinson and once I spent time with the coaches and others here, it was an easy decision.”

Dudley, who was the Jayhawk Freshman of the Year in 2013, contacted Bruno about transferring when she decided not to return to Butler.

“She was kind of a last minute addition,” says Bruno. And a good one, earning All-Jayhawk first team honors and finishing 21st nationally in blocks (1.24) and 30th in hitting percentage (.317). “A great decision,” said Dudley.

Russell, who was all-state in volleyball, honorable mention all-state in basketball and a four-year qualifier in the state track meet at Marysville, finished fifth in the nation in kills (516) and eighth in average (3.94).

“I just love volleyball, my favorite sport,” said Russell of her decision to play college volleyball. “It’s a team sport where you rely on everybody.”

Aparicio was something of a human dynamo diving on the floor countless times to return shots as she took advantage of her 5-4 size to make numerous saves. “I think being small helps. I’m a little faster and react better,” said Aparicio, who finished 21st in the nation in digs per set (5.54) and 22nd in total digs (693).

PHOTO: Sophomores (from left) Kailee Dudley, Carlyn Walsh, Lily Cullers, Lily Thornberg, Andrea Aparicio, Peyton Pender, Blair Russell, Jasdel Gonzalez and Junelie Irizarry will lead the way in KCKCC’s bid for an NJCAA national volleyball championship in the national tourney starting Thursday in Phoenix, Ariz. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)