Sometimes – well, actually, most of the time – moms and dads know best. Just ask Blair Russell.
An outstanding three-sport athlete at Maryville, Kan., Russell tore the labrum in her right shoulder prior to her first collegiate volleyball season at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Tex.
"I was pretty disappointed and thinking about not playing anymore but my mom and dad (Tacy and Mike Russell) kept pushing me," remembers Russell. All the way to becoming a first team All-American and induction into the Kansas City Kansas Community College Athletic Hall of Fame Friday, Nov. 15.
"My sister played at KCKCC and so we knew the Bruno's, Mary and her mother, Dee," says Russell, who had been recruited by KCKCC out of high school. "I think my mother reached out to them and when I was officially released from my letter of intent from Tyler, I came for a visit and Mary told me I had a spot if I wanted it. I was really excited I was going to try again. Coach Bruno refueled my fire for volleyball."
As for the rest of the story, Russell helped the Blue Devils finish 21-11 her first season in 2013 and then reached the pinnacle of NJCAA DII volleyball in 2014 – KCKCC's first ever first team All-American, Academic All-American, Jayhawk Conference Most Valuable Player and KCKCC Female Athlete of the Year. She was also NJCAA National Player of the Week, All-Jayhawk Conference and All-District first team, two-time Jayhawk Player of the Week and received an NJCAA Exemplary Academic Achievement Award. Nationally, Russell finished fifth in kills (516) and eighth in kills per game (3.94).
Her biggest achievement, however, was leading the Blue Devils to the NJCAA DII national tournament for the first and only time where the Blue Devils fell to eventual champion Glendale (Ariz,) in the first round but bounced back to win the consolation bracket with three straight wins. "Definitely my favorite memory," says Russell. "We were definitely the underdog but after losing to the national champion, we won every game after than that. 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? We won the last game of the season and not many teams can say that." Named to the All-Tournament team, the Blue Devils finished ninth in the tournament and No. 7 in the national poll.
"A tremendous athlete, hard-working, dedicated and very team centric," says KCKCC Coach Mary Bruno-Ballou. "Very coachable, always wanting to learn more. You could challenge her and she would respond. During her first year recovering from injury, she was only a three-rotation athlete playing only the front row. But during the spring, she worked so very hard she transitioned into a six-rotation player playing both the front and back row and was a force to be reckoned with."
"We had a group of talented girls who had the same goal and took the spring training very seriously," says Russell. "We worked the whole semester focusing on volleyball and pushing each other." The result was an 8-1 Jayhawk Conference record and 32-10 overall mark. Russell's teammate, Lily Thornburg, was named to the All-American second team and they were joined by Kailee Dudley and Andrea Aparicio on the all-conference first team. Jasdel Gonzalez was a second team selection and Junelle Irizary honorable mention.
"I changed from being an athlete to volleyball specific because of all the technical skills I had to work on," says Russell. "I could not just rely on my athleticism. The training broke down all the fundamental skills so everything became automatic. I had time to focus on strategy shots and the game as a whole. It definitely helped me in going to a four-year university"
Earning an Associate's degree at KCKCC with a major in Journalism and minor in Convergent Media, Russell was a mid-term graduate in 2014 and then transferred to Missouri Western in St. Joseph in January of 2015 where she an MIAA Scholar Athlete and All-MIAA honorable mention. She also worked on the college's newspaper and yearbook staff. She graduated Cum Laude with a degree in Convergent Media, a degree which combines photography, videography, design and journalism..
Russell returned to KCKCC as an assistant coach in 2017-18. "I loved coaching, absolutely loved it," says Russell. "I really enjoyed teaching young players how to play and miss it."
"Blair helped us in so many ways, especially social media," says Bruno-Ballou. "She was the forerunner in everything we've done in keeping what she learned in earning her degree. She made great contributions in her two years as an athlete and one year in coaching with us."
Russell passed on a chance to play at KCKCC after high school. "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. "It's ironic," says Bruno-Ballou. "If not for her injury we would not have had the team and record we did."
Russell might be still coaching were it not for her lifetime dream of photography. "I started taking photos when I was nine years old and wrote a report on photography my freshman year in high school," says Russell, now the owner of Blair Jennifer Photography in Lawrence specializing in weddings, engagements, family photos and associated areas. She also continues playing volleyball every chance she gets – women's and co-ed leagues and sand volleyball.
The induction of Russell and long-time KCKCC Athletic Trainer Rodney Christensen will come between the women's and men's basketball games in the opening round of the Keith Lindsey Classic Friday, Nov. 15. Tipoff of the women's game is 6 p.m.