By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
The Georgian Court University women’s volleyball team had one of the top outside hitters in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference this year in sophomore Amy Bruno.
How did the Lions get so fortunate?
Bruno feels it is divine intervention. She was bestowed a gift from the Lord and understood her mission to put it to good use.
“Since I started playing sports, I knew this was the talent that God gave me,” Amy said. “Everyone has their own individual talent. I never watched sports, I didn’t do them. But the reason I got into it is because I was good at it. I wouldn’t necessarily have tried it, but I thought ‘I’m not going to push it aside. God wants me to do something with this so I’m going to excel in it.’
“I started just working out a lot and I started going further and further and further. I just saw, no matter what I do, this is my career. This is going to be my life. Sports, or fitness or something is going to be my career in life.”
Bruno began fulfilling the quest at All Saints Regional Catholic School, Manahawkin, but did not really begin learning the game until attending Barnegat High School. The moment Amy walked into tryouts, the coach knew she would be on the team just because of her height.
“She needed a tall girl and said (to herself), ‘Yup, you’re on the team, you’re tall,’” Bruno said. “She basically said ‘I’m gonna make you into a volleyball player whether you like it or not.’ It was pretty funny. She didn’t know about me because I went to Catholic middle school, I was a little gift to her. She told me my junior year ‘I needed tall girls and you came in at the right time. You were definitely going to be on the team.’”
Bruno played JV as a freshman and saw limited varsity time as a sophomore until the final game of the season. That just happened to be the NJSIAA Group II state final, which Barnegat lost to Sterling. Ninth-seeded Barnegat had stunned top-seeded Wall in the semis but lost one of their front-line players in the process, so Amy got her first varsity start in the biggest game of the year.
“It was rough, it was scary,” she said. “But that’s how it went.”
She became a varsity starter the next two seasons, made All-Conference both years and was recruited by various colleges. Her first visit was to Georgian Court, but at that time, the Lakewood school was last on her wish list. After visits to Montclair and a Division I school in Oklahoma, she decided to give Georgian Court a more serious look.
“Everyone was so welcoming; the coaches were so nice,” she said. “Other schools I’d visited, it’s more like I was a student. I wasn’t a person, I was a student-athlete that they had to train to become this certain person. Here, it was like ‘You’re a human, we want you because we want to get to know you better.’ They actually care about you.”
At this point in her life, Bruno had increasing faith that athletics was God’s plan for her.
“I think the thing that really assured me the most was, a lot of times I should have gotten badly injured … and I wouldn’t,” she said. “The only reason behind it was our God didn’t want me to get injured. There was no reason I shouldn’t have gotten injured. The amount of times it happened, it just pulled me closer and closer and made me so thankful to have this opportunity to play.
“I know without volleyball, I probably wouldn’t even be in college. I’m not the best student but I’m a good athlete. It just has pulled me so close because I know without God I wouldn’t be an athlete, wouldn’t be in college. I don’t even know what I’d be doing with my life right now if I didn’t have this talent.”
She has used it well. After a solid freshman year, Bruno flourished this past season and earned first-team All-CACC honors as a middle blocker, as well as a second-team designation on the NCAA Division II Conference Commissioner’s Association All-Region squad. She was second on the Lions in kills with 226 and had a .323 hitting percentage, which was second in the CACC. Defensively, Amy led the conference with 116 blocks and a 1.04 blocks-per-set average (third in the CACC).
Bruno started as a middle hitter in high school but became a right-side hitter for her club team and enjoyed that more.
“I just felt more engaged there,” she said.
Amy continued as right-side hitter her freshman year in college, but due to a lack of middle hitters on the Lions, she was moved there this season and blossomed.
“I honestly was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be that good at middle. I was definitely nervous; very skeptical.”
Turns out, there was no reason for that.
“Amy took several steps forward this season,” Coach Dan Sempkowski said. “She made the move to play a position we were short on this season, where she put the team needs as a priority. Between her having another year of college volleyball under her belt, in addition to coming into pre-season in optimum shape, she had great success this year.”
It took a while for Bruno to click , and at the season’s outset, she was mostly just playing defense and not contributing offensively. But suddenly …
“For some reason I connected with my setters really well and it just all clicked,” Amy said. “I just was able to be smart with it, was able to think more like a middle. I noticed just playing sports you need to take yourself away from one thing to really understand it better. So by taking that whole season off from middle helped me to be smarter with it.”
Sempkowski feels that Bruno’s biggest attribute is her commitment to physical fitness, noting that “even though she’s only a sophomore, she ranks out as the strongest volleyball player we have ever had pretty much across the board in our fitness tests. From an athleticism standpoint, that gives her a huge edge on the court.”
The coach said Bruno’s ability has no ceiling, noting, “as she continues to develop connections with our setters, she could be unstoppable and efficient at the same time. On the blocking side, she still has opportunities to improve her blocking IQ, which comes with simply more game-time experience.”
And while Sempkowski is appreciative to have a talent like Amy, he is more impressed with her religious conviction. Georgian Court’s Mercy Core values of justice, integrity, respect, compassion and service are stressed beyond winning and losing.
“Amy lives those both on and off the court,” the coach said. “Service is the one our team puts a lot of emphasis on. We’ve put in over 500 hours thus far, Amy has over 47 hours individually, which is second highest on our team.”
That has just been a way of life for Bruno. Amy’s mom, Alicia, is a youth minister and, in starting in fourth grade, despite being too young to join the youth group, Amy would accompany her mom to meetings.
“She would bring me along because she knew how much I wanted to go there,” Bruno said. “The most impactful thing that got me into service were the mission trips we would go on. Just the feeling that you get from helping people is insane. Winning an extremely important game doesn’t even feel the way it feels from helping someone. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
On of Bruno’s first experiences in that was packaging Thanksgiving meals for the needy. She was struck at how they would break into appreciative tears.
“I would get upset because my mom didn’t buy Oreos when we got back from the store, but these people don’t even have a breakfast, and they got a breakfast and that would make them cry,” she said. “They’re eating probably the plainest oatmeal in the world, which I would never think of eating, and they would cry about it because they were so thankful. I honestly think that’s what made me love service so much.”
It is that mindset that has the Exercise Science major pursuing a career as a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach. She gets the same rush from helping someone improve their physical wellbeing and appearance as she gets from feeding the hungry.
And that will never change, whether in Barnegat or halfway around the world.
“There is no shot I’m not going to be involved in service,” Bruno said. “No shot I’m not going on mission trips. I don’t even know what I’d do if I didn’t go. I’m going to help out a youth group. I’m not gonna grow away from it. It’s something I grew up with, and I’m gonna live with for the rest of my life.”