By ALAN HOSKINS
KCKCC Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- Almost exactly two years ago, Blair Russell was not sure she wanted to continue playing collegiate volleyball.
Today, the Kansas City Kansas Community College sophomore is a first team Division II All-American, the College’s first, and sophomore teammate Lily Thornberg is the first Lady Blue Devil to be named to the second All-American team as selected by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).
The only other Blue Devil to earn post-season All-American honors came two years ago when Kendra Alexander received honorable mention.
“I am thrilled and so incredibly proud,” said KCKCC Coach Mary Bruno. “I know how hard Blair and Lily worked but what’s so wonderful is to see them get recognition from other people and other coaches. They’ve worked so hard throughout their entire careers here and what makes their honors so special is that they earned them with their hard work.”
Nationally, Russell finished fifth in kills (516) and eighth in kill average (3.94) and Thornberg fifth in assists per set with 10.74 per game as KCKCC (32-10) finished No. 8 in the final NJCAA rankings.
A three-sport standout at Marysville (Kan.) High School, Russell started her collegiate career at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Tex.
“My sister, Riley, had played at KCKCC so I didn’t want to play here just because she did; I wanted to do my own thing,” said Russell. “Also, the Tyler coach who had been at Hutchinson saw me at a showcase so I decided to go there.”
Unfortunately, Russell tore up her shoulder part way through her freshman season. “I didn’t know if I wanted to play after that,” said Russell. “I didn’t know if my shoulder would recover 100 percent plus on top of that I was kind of homesick.”
That all changed with one call to Bruno.
“I called Mary and she took me right in and I’m just so glad I did,” said Russell. Awarded a medical redshirt, she transferred to KCKCC in the spring of 2013. “I only played front row last year.” This season she rarely came off the court playing both front and back rows.
The ascension of Russell and Thornberg to All-American status may have come this fall but it was all set up by off-season work last spring. “I worked with Mary on technical skills and getting back my vertical every day in the spring,” said Russell. “We really worked hard on little things which Mary loves.”
“I went from no post-season awards to second team All-American in a year and a half with Mary,” concurred Thornberg. “I spent a lot of time on the court with Mary, working on my hands and footwork and returning sets to stationary targets and really started seeing improvement.”
Bruno had taken a liking to Thornberg after seeing her in her junior year at Junction City and won a tight recruiting battle with Hutchinson.
“I felt comfortable with Mary and liked the location of the campus,” said Thornberg, who had a dream come true. “When I first came here I told Mary I wanted to leave here an All-American.”
Both Russell and Thornberg were first team All-Jayhawk selections along with Andrea Aparicio and Kailee Dudley, Russell was named the conference’s MVP, Thornberg co-setter of the year, Aparicio Libero of the Year and Bruno co-coach of the year.
In addition, Jasdel Gonzalez was second team All-Jayhawk and Junelie Irizarry honorable mention. All six were also all-district selections.
“Last year they received no awards but because of their work on the basics and refining their skill sets in the spring, both were first team all-conference and all-district, Blair the MVP, Lily the co-setter of the year and Blair was named to the national all-tournament team,” said Bruno. “And now they are both All-Americans.”
Playing one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, the Blue Devils finished second in the Jayhawk at 9-1 by virtue of a 3-2 loss at Cowley; won the Division N district; and rebounded from an opening round loss to eventual national champion Glendale (Ariz,) to win the consolation bracket in the national Division II tourney in Phoenix.
“It was really sad bumping into the eventual champion in the first round but I was proud of the way we rebounded and won out,” said Thornberg. “We played some very good Division I teams (and eight Division II finalists in the national tourney) and it really helped, especially our defense which really showed up in the national.”
“We had a meeting that night after losing and Mary asked us what happens next, do we roll over and go home or fight back,” said Russell. “We were unlucky to draw Glendale and very disappointed losing the first game but they were a very deserving team. We wanted to win out and place.”
Both Russell and Thornberg will finish the 2014-15 academic year at KCKCC while working out this spring with returning members of the Blue Devil volleyball team. Neither has decided on where they’ll continue playing. “I want to weigh all my options so I can make the right decision,” said Russell. Might they continue together? “That would be cool,” she grinned.
PHOTO: Kansas City Kansas Community College All-Americans Blair Russell (left) and Lily Thornberg (right) embrace the person they credit with making an All-American season happen, Coach Mary Bruno. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)