CHAMPAIGN — If Laura DeBruler didn't know her way around a computer spreadsheet before, the former Illinois volleyball All-American does now.
Shortly after joining the coaching staff at her alma mater in January as a volunteer assistant, DeBruler received her first major work assignment. Her task was to provide head coach Kevin Hambly with a statistical analysis of the 2011 team's hitting and blocking. Every hit. Every block.
Teaming up with then-Illini assistant David Kniffin, DeBruler watched videotape of each UI match from last season, then recorded data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet the size of a college volleyball net.
Or so it seemed.
"Initially, it seemed very daunting," DeBruler said Tuesday in the volleyball video room at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building. "But once we got into it and figured out exactly what we wanted to do, it just was the time you needed to put in to watch the film."
The painstaking task took DeBruler and Kniffin the whole spring semester, wrapping up in May. Rather than heaving a sigh of relief when it was done, DeBruler experienced a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
"I feel really good about it," she said. "As a player, they give you numbers and you don't ever see where it's coming from, but now I saw the behind-the-scenes of the work we have to put in. A lot of the top programs use stats a lot ... to try to make the team better."
DeBruler certainly contributed her share toward elevating Illini volleyball during a record-setting playing career. A member of the UI's tide-turning recruiting Class of 2007, DeBruler helped set the program on a course toward annual postseason appearances, Top 10 national rankings and, most recently, a 2011 runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament. In the process, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter became the UI career leader in kills, attack attempts and 20-kill matches.
Now, DeBruler is lending a hand from a new perspective — one she hopes will lead to a career in coaching.
"I love volleyball, first off, just to be surrounded by it," she said. "Playing was really fun, but continuing on to the next level with coaching was something I definitely wanted to do."
That opportunity presented itself when the Downers Grove native returned home in late November after an injury-shortened season with a professional team in Switzerland.
As an Illini senior, DeBruler's college career came to a premature end when she suffered an ACL tear in her left knee. Now, the same knee — painful and swollen — knocked DeBruler off the court again. Turns out, cartilage in the joint had been worn away by years of playing. She also would need a bone graft, her orthopedist determined.
So it was back to the operating table for more surgery, which took place July 6 and has DeBruler currently navigating around campus and beyond with the help of crutches.
The latest injury might have put her pro career on hold — possibly for good — but it opened the door to coaching. Upon returning from overseas, DeBruler contacted Hambly just to touch base. As far back as her sophomore season, the two had discussed DeBruler's interest in some day becoming a coach.
The call was well-timed. Jennifer Fry, who served as the UI volunteer assistant last season, would soon be moving on, eventually joining the Elon University staff as a full-time assistant to former Illini great Mary (Eggers) Tendler.
"I told her we were looking for someone (to fill that spot)," Hambly said.
DeBruler jumped at the chance, even though — as her job title suggests — it comes without a paycheck.
"It would be nice, of course, to get paid, but I think the biggest thing for me is this is a great program and I know the staff," she said. "Hopefully, having this on my resume will help me a lot when I try to get a job after this season."
For Hambly, this hiring decision was a no-brainer.
"I'm excited to have Laura on our staff," he said. "It's great to have players who have been through what we teach and also are close in age to the (current) players."
Hambly says he's become increasingly aware of the growing age difference between himself and his players, so having young staff members like DeBruler and new graduate assistant Michelle Bartsch — who concluded her Illini career last season — is valuable.
Hambly recalled an instance in which he tried to make a point to his team that talk is cheap when it's not backed up by hard work. In doing so, he quoted the sage-but-dated cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn: "You're doing a lot of choppin', but no chips are flyin'."
Said Hambly: "When I'm teaching, I like to try to find novels or quotes or stories that will resonate with the team. They had no idea who Foghorn Leghorn was. I do the accent, and they think I'm ridiculous."
With 20-somethings DeBruler and Bartsch now on the staff, the Illini head coach figures he can do a test run of his motivational ideas and learn whether they'll fly or fall flat.
"Yeah, we've talked about this," DeBruler said. "Maybe Kevin brings up an idea to us and we have no clue what he's talking about, he probably won't bring it up to the team ... so I think we do bridge that gap a little bit."
As a volunteer assistant, DeBruler is limited in her duties by NCAA rules. For example, she cannot be involved in off-campus recruiting or even in electronic contacts between the staff and prospective recruits. The sheer volume of communication in this area has been an eye-opener for DeBruler.
"We're always sending out emails or getting emails from kids that want to come here," she said. "And then we're trying to get our name out there. I kind of knew, but I didn't realize the extent of how much that really happens."
Once the season begins, DeBruler's responsibilities will include assisting in the preparation of scouting reports. That will require yet more time in the video room, as she analyzes three to four matches of upcoming Illini opponents.
DeBruler is most looking forward to helping out on the practice court — especially after her knee is healed and she can teach by example as well as with words.
"Kevin has talked about (me) hopping into practice," DeBruler said.
On an Illini team that must replace both of its starting outside hitters, her work with a group of young outsides who have little to no college playing experience should be a valuable complement to Hambly's instruction.
"The really cool thing is I get to coach, too," DeBruler said. "I know what it's like to be in the Big Ten, and just the work ethic (required). I think that's the biggest thing. As an outside, if the play goes out of whack, the ball's going to come to you, so just making sure our outside hitters are putting in the work to get a good approach and helping them with different shots."
DeBruler can't be sure where she'll be or what she'll do after this season. She still so loves playing the game that a return to the pro ranks — if her knee will allow — remains a possibility. But if this is the start of an unbroken career in coaching, the most prolific hitter in Illini volleyball history is glad it could be at her alma mater.
"I feel blessed and thankful that they'd want me back," DeBruler said. "One of the reasons I wanted to get into coaching is I had an awesome time here, and I just want to give that back to girls I will eventually coach."
Laura DeBruler isn’t the only former Illini volleyball player who has made the transition to coaching. Here are others currently on college or high school staffs:
NAME SCHOOL TITLE
Stefanie Alde Loyola Assistant coach
Promoted to full-time position this year after two seasons as graduate assistant
Michelle Bartsch Illinois Student assistant
Three-time All-American still with program after helping ’11 Illini to NCAA runner-up spot
Vicki Brown Illinois State Assistant coach
Joined Redbirds staff in June after serving as volunteer assistant at Toledo in 2011
Kristine (Anderson) Rousseau Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley H.S. Head coach
Second-year Falcons coach building pipeline with addition of 5th-6th-grade program
Laura Bush Minnesota Assistant coach
Gophers interim head coach in 2011 while Hugh McCutcheon prepared U.S. women’s team for Olympics
Hillary Haen Chillicothe IVC H.S. Head coach
2010 third-team All-American taking over program that won regional titles three of last four years
Heather (Wilson) Horn Parkland College Assistant coach
Rantoul native has helped Cobras reach NJCAA Division II tournament each of last four seasons
Sue (Webber) Jacobson Saint Louis Assistant coach
One of 10 NCAA Division I coaches selected for Thirty Under 30 Award to honor young coaching talent
Kylie McCulley Wayne State Graduate assistant
Second year on staff of Division II program that has reached conference tournament last four seasons
Mary (Eggers) Tendler Elon Head coach
1989 National Player of Year guided Southern Conference team to fifth straight winning season in 2011
Kayani Turner Southeast Missouri State Assistant coach
Second-year staff member helped Redhawks double their win total last season (14) from previous year
Erin Virtue Michigan Assistant coach
Division I assistant since 2006, helped 2011 Wolverines reach NCAA Sweet 16 in first year on staff