Lost games toss KCKCC into regional playoff with national champion JCCC
It has been often said that "the saddest words ever penned were those of what might have been." So it was for Coach Mary Bruno-Ballou and her Kansas City Kansas Community College volleyball team in 2021.
"We had just knocked off nationally ranked Highland in three straight sets and were hitting our stride when the Covid procedure hit," says Bruno-Ballou. Quarantined for two weeks, the Blue Devils were able to play only one of their final four games – all winnable – before drawing 2021 NJCAA DII national champion Johnson County in the regional tournament.
"We were projected to finish third or even second in the conference," says Bruno-Ballou. Instead, the Blue Devils finished fourth and in the playoff bracket with Johnson County. Ranked No. 4 in the nation, the Cavaliers surged to the national championship, beating Parkland 3-1 in the final. Had they finished second or third, the Blue Devils would have been grouped with Highland or Neosho County, which also qualified for the national.
The Blue Devils returned to action just five days before the regional tournament. "We beat Labette on a Monday and only had two or three days of practice," says Bruno-Ballou. The Blue Devils defeated Cloud in three tough sets in the opening round but an hour later fell to No. 1 seeded JCCC 3-0. "Johnson County played fantastic, they earned their national berth," says Bruno-Ballou. "Their winning the national championship just further confirms just how tough it is to play in the Jayhawk Conference."
Even then the Blue Devils were one of three teams that were considered for an alternate berth in the national tournament should a team not be able to attend.
Four Blue Devils earned post-season honors. Outside hitter Cassidy Crist was first team All-Jayhawk and All-District; setter Adriana Velez, first team All-District; middle blocker Michelle Dvorak second team All-District; and freshman Libero Kelcey Hund, second team All-District and All-Jayhawk honorable mention.
While they are sophomores, Crist and Velez will return next year. Because of the pandemic, athletes were not assessed a year of eligibility for the 2021 season. Only losses will be Dvorak, middle blocker McKenna Johnson and freshman outside hitter Mia Tomasic, who is now a member of the KCKCC soccer team. Other soph returnees will include Nicole Almestica, Justice Davis and Jordan Johnson.
"I'm super proud of this group; they had the ability to go to the national tournament but circumstances took it out of their control," says Bruno-Ballou. "It was a resilient group playing for the love of the game. Unfortunately, they did not get what they expected for their collegiate playing experience but they accepted it with grace and dignity."
The Blue Devils were swept only once in their eight losses and that came in the regional championship to the eventual national champion, Johnson County. "We were competitive with every team we played," says Bruno-Ballou. Two of the three losses to JCCC were by 3-1; other setbacks were to foes ranked in the Top 20 at the time they played them – Lincoln Land, Neosho County, Fort Scott and Cloud.
In addition to the season being moved from the fall to the spring and the pandemic quarantine, Bruno-Ballou's season included the birth of a daughter, 5-month-old Isabella. "Without the support staff and help of assistant coaches Asya Herron and Dee Bruno and trainer Kylie Heim, this season could never have been possible," said Bruno-Ballou, who got her 200th career win in her 10th season. "It was a trying season but there's no one I would rather go to work with than these athletes and coaches."