Kylie Bruder steps into expanded role with new offense

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics/ Craig Pessman

Senior setter Kylie Bruder rises up to serve during a game against Wisconsin at Huff Hall on Jan. 29. Bruder has overcome many challenges to become one of the team’s star players this season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

For senior Kylie Bruder, her role has changed from a self-described cheerleader on the bench to an integral piece in Illinois’ rotation almost overnight. With head coach Chris Tamas opting to run a 6-2 rotation, which utilizes two setters, Bruder got the nod at the start of the season and hasn’t looked back.

Though she is a major part of Illinois’ offense this season, it didn’t always look like she’d get to play much.

“I came in in my freshman year and tore my ACL, so I didn’t get to play at all that year,” Bruder said. “When I came back from that injury, I was kind of a mess playing-wise. I hadn’t played in eight months, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Bruder struggled when she returned from injury, but Illinois had the infrastructure for her to fall back on. Tamas was a setter during his playing career, and the program had an all-time great setter in Jordyn Poulter at the time.

“Chris is a great setters coach, and he’s taught me a lot,” Bruder said. “I also got to learn from someone like Jordyn who is an amazing setter and could be an Olympian one day, so she’s an awesome person to learn from. (Diana Brown) and Mica (Allison) are pushing me every day in the gym. They’re both really talented setters. I think just being surrounded with people like that has helped me grow a lot.”

Before things got better for Bruder, they got a bit worse. When COVID-19 hit, Bruder was worried she may have taken the court for the last time.

“It was definitely hard at first, just emotionally, especially when our fall season got canceled, not knowing if I was ever gonna play a competitive volleyball game again,” Bruder said. “That was definitely tough mentally, and I think all the seniors sort of felt that way. There were a lot of unknowns. After that, we just came in. I think the team did a really good job of working hard every day despite the circumstances.”

Now that the season is underway, Bruder’s worries have mostly vanished as she’s gotten on the court with her teammates. She’s played in all 24 sets so far this year, and in that time she’s excelled. So far, she’s averaging a serviceable 4.04 assists per set.

While seeing major playing time is a first for Bruder, her play has looked like that of a seasoned veteran, as she’s made savvy plays left and right. One such play was a fake set she logged for a kill during Illinois’ only set win over No. 1 Wisconsin on Jan. 30.

“I probably started doing that in high school,” Bruder said. “I think it honestly works better in college because people are less likely to think you are just going to do that because it doesn’t seem like it would work — just setting a ball over the net. When teams aren’t expecting it, it will go down. It’s something I’ve been doing for a while. It’s kind of a fun thing with our (defensive specialists) when I get them on one since they know I like to do it.”

While kills are few and far between for setters, Bruder’s kill was especially valuable, as the set Illinois won against Wisconsin is still Wisconsin’s only set loss of the season through seven matches.

With making slick, unconventional plays quickly becoming a niche for Bruder, it seems she may be taking part in a line of elite setters within the program. While Poulter was the latest great setter to pass the torch, Bruder is getting a brief chance to hold it herself, playing the setter position alongside redshirt sophomore Diana Brown this season.

“I’m definitely just really grateful for the opportunity to be able to come in and play,” Bruder said. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for me from the past where I’ve just been a bit of a cheerleader on the bench. I enjoyed that role, but I have to be more engaged now in the game. A little bit of nerves at first, but I think I’m settling into the role, but I think that’ll come with time, too.”

@WesHollenberg

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