Sports

Bruce leads top-ranked Cascades into huge showdown with No. 2 Mariners

Kayla Bruce, the reigning PacWest women
Kayla Bruce, the reigning PacWest women's volleyball MVP and overlal female athlete of the year, has her UFV Cascades ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history. They host the No. 3 Vancouver Island University Mariners in a huge showdown this weekend.
— image credit: Tree Frog Imaging

As he launches into a discussion on what makes Kayla Bruce such a special player, University of the Fraser Valley women's volleyball coach Dennis Bokenfohr issues a disclaimer.

"It's pretty generic stuff," he says with a wry chuckle.

It's a curious thing to say about an athlete who has led the Cascades to the No. 1 spot in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) rankings for the first time in program history, and who has positioned herself as a strong contender for the national player of the year award.

But as promised, Bokenfohr begins by pointing out that Bruce, at 5'10", is undersized for a middle at the college level, nor does she make up for it with otherworldly leaping ability.

The more Bokenfohr talks about Bruce, though, the more interesting she gets.

"It's kind of weird," he mused. "It's like, what is it about her? But she just out-competes everyone, night in and night out.

"She probably works harder than anyone on our team in every practice. . . . and she plays a lot bigger than her height. She doesn't jump higher than anyone – she's just so competitive, and she has the drive to succeed all the time. That's what separates her from the rest."

Bruce's blue-collar, high-character approach has yielded an impressive career with the Cascades. After playing two years at Briercrest College in Caronport, Sask., she transferred to UFV for the 2010-11 campaign.

Last season, the Surrey native helped the Cascades win their first-ever medal at the national championships, a bronze, while picking up PacWest conference awards for women's volleyball MVP and overall female athlete of the year, along with CCAA All-Canadian honours.

This season, she leads the PacWest in total offence, accounting for an average of 4.61 points per set. She's fifth in the nation in kills (3.37 per set) and second in blocks (0.98), and has been nominated for Sport BC's college athlete of the year award.

Bruce seems almost embarrassed by all the individual accolades – she'd prefer to share the limelight with her teammates. Indeed, she is surrounded by a great deal of talent in the Cascades' starting lineup, which also features middle Kierra Noot, left sides Jenna Evans and Katie Bilodeau, right side Krista Hogewoning, setter Kira Tome and libero Brittany Stewart.

"It's a tight-knit bond," Bruce said. "We're in the ultimate position – every team wants to be where we are right now. It's just been really fun."

Bokenfohr points to the friendship between fifth-year seniors Bruce and Stewart as being the foundation of the Cascades' chemistry. During their high school days, the two were teammates with Focus Volleyball Club out of Surrey, and it was Stewart who convinced Bruce to attend UFV after she was finished at Briercrest.

"She gets me," Bruce said of Stewart. "We've had these past three years to develop together, but we also had those years in club, and I feel like that makes such a huge difference. There's that connection, feeling like I know that she's going to get every ball on the court. She's our unsung hero."

When she's not playing volleyball, Bruce's attire is accented by a diamond ring on her left hand – she and fiancé Carl Unger are gearing up for a July 21 wedding.

It's an intense time of transition for the 22-year-old, with her college volleyball eligibility about to expire and married life on the horizon. Bruce said that balancing schoolwork, volleyball and wedding planning is "tiring sometimes," but she's focused on closing out her UFV career by earning another ring, that of the national championship variety.

The Cascades (17-1) face a high-profile test this weekend, as they host the Vancouver Island University Mariners in a Friday-Saturday set at the Envision Athletic Centre. Bokenfohr calls them the biggest regular season home games in the history of the UFV women's volleyball program – the Mariners (16-2) are the defending national champs and currently ranked No. 2 in the CCAA.

"I don't want to belittle the other teams in our league, but when it comes down to it, they're the top competition," said Bruce, whose team split a pair of games vs. VIU in Nanaimo back in November. "It's really fun to play a team that can really keep up the competitive level consistently throughout the game. We have seen that in some of our other games, but for these ones, we really have to be on our A game. We can't let anything slide. Everyone has to be firing on all cylinders.

"If we could take two off them this weekend, it would prove a lot to ourselves. In the end, what we're looking for is a national championship."

• The UFV volleyball teams host VIU on Friday (women 6 p.m., men 8 p.m.) and Saturday (women 1 p.m., men 3 p.m.).

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