By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
At 5 feet 7 inches, Baylor senior libero Jana Brusek isn’t the tallest player on the volleyball court. In fact, she’s one of the shortest. But her petite, physical stature has not prevented her from playing big for three years for head coach Ryan McGuyre. In fact, her competitive yet tenderhearted nature packs quite a punch, something McGuyre said encompasses the heart of Baylor volleyball.
“She definitely captures the spirit of Baylor volleyball. As far as having grit, playing hard and playing fast,” McGuyre said. “She is playing for the Lord and something bigger than herself.”
Brusek may be the embodiment of Baylor volleyball now, but it didn’t come without recognizing the need for change and growth. It meant not running from times of uncertainty and transition.
Growing up in Chicago, Brusek was exposed to a life of Cubs fandom and deep dish pizza and she claims that Pequod’s Pizza is the best there is. Athletically, she has been playing competitive club volleyball since she was 12 years old, where she started as a middle hitter. As her peers and teammates grew, she transitioned to outside hitter, where her heart was set and her mind made up.
“I really didn’t want to transition. I was determined to be the shortest outside in NCAA Division I volleyball,” Brusek said. “My coaches kept encouraging me to try defense and when I finally started digging balls, there wasn’t really any exhilaration that could beat it and I knew that that was going to my role and that I could be incredible at it. So I put all of my time and effort into that and with the encouragement and gifts from God, I’ve taken a lot of strides.”
Even as Brusek embraced her new role and put aside the ambition that she had clung to for so long, uncertainty and transition were not far behind her. Once again, she would face a difficult transition.
After her freshman season in 2014, the program had reached a point of transition. Former head coach Jim Barnes was out after 11 seasons and McGuyre was in. Like any new relationship, it needed nurturing and time to develop into something special.
“I think we’ve grown in our relationship too. We were not on the same page right out of the gate,” McGuyre said. “Me wanting things from her, her expecting things from me. Like many times, the ones you butt heads with tend to be the best leaders and the ones we were connect the most with. We had some ironing sharpen iron moments.”
Even though their relationship was slow out of the blocks, Brusek said that she never considered changing programs and leaving her Baylor family.
“I honestly think that when Coach McGuyre came and Coach Barnes, who is an awesome man of God, left, I really took it as a sign from God that this was a new start and that I should be staying,” Brusek said. “It made the decision a bit easier. Something new is starting here and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Since McGuyre took over in December 2014, the program has continued to improve each season. The Bears finished 17-13 and above .500 for the first time in two years in 2015. In 2016, Baylor finished 22-12 overall while tying for fourth in the Big 12 and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where it defeated No. 14 San Diego in the first round before falling to No. 10 UCLA in the second round.
Brusek has played a pivotal role in the team’s success over her four seasons at Baylor, anchoring the defense at the libero position. Over her last two seasons, Brusek has increased her total number of digs from 365 in 2015 to 577 in 2016 and she’s off to a fast start this season, tallying 91 digs in her first six matches.
Brusek has been blessed with success and opportunity off the volleyball court as well. For her academic excellence in biology, she has been first team Academic All-Big 12 in 2015 and 2016. In 2014, she made the Academic All-Big 12 Rookie team. McGuyre said nobody studies more than Brusek does.
Brusek has also had the opportunity to be active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus, including taking a mission trip to Brazil in May 2016. The trip opened her eyes to the collaborative effort of faith and sports and what happens when God uses these elements to advance the kingdom.
“There was such a language barrier from speaking Portuguese to speaking English, and sport being that universal language really just opened doors left and right to serve the people there and enjoy playing sport with them,” Brusek said. “It was just an incredible experience getting to see what God can do through sports regardless of circumstances.”
It has been this new perspective of volleyball, grounded in faith that has been the most obvious change that McGuyre has seen in Brusek’s life.
“I think she’s grown spiritually and is playing for something bigger than herself and I think she understands so much more. Her purpose is to reflect God’s purpose back to him,” McGuyre said. “I think when our girls and the fans look at her, they see a woman who loves to play and plays with great passion and great energy and great excitement.”
This passion, energy and excitement are still very present in Brusek’s behavior as she is constantly running all over the court, chasing down as many balls as she can get to, running into chairs and people or whatever may be in her way and not giving a second thought about it. She is quick to her knees and willing to dive if it means getting the ball up in the air to one of her teammates, giving them a chance to win the point. Bruises and consequences aside, this has always been her mentality.
“I really think I’ve been trained to see ball, get ball. The coaches here trained that, previous coaches have trained that,” Brusek said. “You see ball, get ball and then you kind of deal the consequences after that. Luckily nothing has been too bad, so it hasn’t really been a reason to stop. I think just the idea of when you see the ball, you’re going to go for it and we’ll figure out what happens after that.”
Just as Brusek transitioned from outside hitter to libero and at Baylor from playing for Barnes to McGuyre, as a senior, transition is once again knocking on her door. This time it will be to transition out of volleyball, and for Brusek that means hopefully going to nursing school.
But that is then and her senior season is now. For her, that means diving and digging and doing whatever she can for her team on the court, but also helping to lead and teach her younger teammates what volleyball is really all about.
“Encouraging them to know their motivation for why they play because if you know that you’re playing for a motivation that is unshakable then you know injury, starting position, non-starting position, none of that can shake you,” Brusek said. “I encourage them to hold on to their eternal motivation and just that giving will always be better receiving.”
Brusek and the Bears are currently competing in the Outrigger Resorts Volleyball Challenge in Honolulu, Wash. Baylor will take on Nevada at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, Hawaii at midnight CST., which is 7 p.m. HST (Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time) Friday and No. 10 BYU on 9:45 p.m. Saturday.