Vail, Brueggeman bond sparks UND's postseason run
GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota volleyball team's extended season, which continued thanks to a repeat Big Sky Conference tournament title last weekend, means some players don't have a chance to go home for Thanksgiving.
For UND junior Jordan Vail, from San Antonio, Texas, it means she goes to her second home.
Vail will head to Eden Prairie, Minn., to join teammate Ashley Brueggeman.
"It's my home away from home," Vail said.
The Vail-Brueggeman connection isn't a new bond.
Brueggeman moved to Minnesota from Texas as a sophomore in high school. The two were club volleyball teammates and both recruited by UND head coach Mark Pryor, then an assistant at Baylor.
That connection is starting to pay major dividends for the Fighting Hawks, who will find out their NCAA tournament destination on Sunday, Nov. 26, although the team is fully expecting another matchup with Minnesota due to the regional nature of volleyball bracketology.
"I think those two have shouldered a much bigger load," Pryor said. "Jordan has done a really good job, becoming problematic for opponents. She's able to jump so high and score. Ashley is becoming the player I knew should be. She hits harder than anyone we have. She's comfortable and accepting of the fact that she's going to have a lot of volume."
Brueggeman, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, is third on the team in kills with 361. Vail, a 6-1 junior, is fourth on the team with 302 kills.
Brueggeman has saved her best for last. She's riding a four-match stretch in which she's had at least 13 kills, including a 17-kill performance in a five-set win over Sacramento State in the Big Sky title match.
Vail, too, has come on as of late. She's had at least 12 kills in the past four matches, including 14 each in the Big Sky semifinals and finals.
She had 19 kills in a five-set match against Idaho late in the regular season.
The performance of Vail and Brueggeman down the stretch has provided some hope for UND's 2018 season in which the Fighting Hawks will try to deal with the losses of a talented senior class that includes Sydney Griffin, Tamara Merseli and Faith Dooley.
"It's nice to know that even though we graduate a lot, we have two big point scorers coming back," Pryor said.
After Pryor came to UND, he went to a club tournament in Minneapolis in which he saw Brueggeman.
"She saw me and did a double take," Pryor said. "I was wearing a different type of green. It wasn't Baylor green."
Pryor said landing Brueggeman was key in getting Vail to transfer in from Baylor.
"I came here because I've known coach Pryor since my freshman year of high school," Vail said.
Brueggeman and Vail hadn't kept in contact since playing on the same club team but still were friends on social media.
"(Vail) contacted me the spring of my senior year of high school and said she had some news," Brueggeman said. "I hadn't heard from her in so long, but I was excited. First, she's amazing as a player. Plus, we were friends on the club team back then."
It's been a beneficial Texas reunion for Pryor.
"North Dakota isn't for every Texan, but I think we have enough of a contingent here that it helps," he said.
Vail was one of three UND players named to the all-Big Sky team announced prior to the league tournament.
Brueggeman wasn't on the list.
"I was irate she wasn't all-conference," Pryor said. "She proved me right Thursday, Friday and Saturday. She was the difference in our team. They were keying on our middles, but she was just as terminal."
UND's Texas connection is an example of the team's differing backgrounds, which includes local talent from North Dakota and Minnesota, junior college transfers, Division I transfers, two Serbians, a Canadian and even one from Laguna Beach, Calif.
Pryor is proud of the closeness of his group despite the differing backgrounds.
"It's our culture," he said.
He pointed to an example at the conference tournament in which Julia Kaczorowska, a senior from Oakville, Ont., challenged her team to stick to its identity in the face of adversity.
"Julia has given two ACLs and I don't know how much cartilage damage to this program but she competes as hard as she can," Pryor said. "She was not going to let us forget how we want to behave as a team and treat one another.
"They love each other fiercely. It's family. You fight with each other but you fight for each other."