Hilton Head Prep's Brunori sisters overcome knee injuries to continue basketball careers

ksalter@islandpacket.comJune 14, 2014 

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Former Hilton Head Prep basketball players Jill and Kate Brunori, first and second from left, are pictured with teammates Kathleen Blum and Jamese Franklin prior to the 2010-11 season. The Brunori sisters are both continuing their basketball careers in college despite serious knee injuries in their past.

SARAH WELLIVER — File photo

The Curse was born on a fall afternoon in 1982, spawned by the collision of a linebacker's helmet and an exploding left knee.

Conceived in, of all places, Lafayette, Pa., it lay dormant for 25 years before striking again.

And again.

And again.

When The Curse struck Kate Brunori, there was no telltale pop, only wrenching pain, exacerbated by the anguish of uncertainty. Uncertainty about her knee, her season, and her career.

Almost six years later, she remembers the moment vividly. Brunori scrambled to recover a loose ball as it rolled out of bounds. Then-coach Bob Sulek's instructions flashed through her mind: Dive on the ball. Instead, Brunori, fearing she would slide out of bounds, attempted to just stop and reach down, planting her right leg in the process.

"That was actually a horrible decision," Kate said. "I remember falling to the ground. I thought my kneecap popped out."

She was carried to the trainer's room, where she was informed that her knee ligaments were probably torn, something Brunori said she already knew. She underwent surgery in January, and immediately began work on her rehabilitation.

At times, it seemed the physical anguish of a structurally unsound and damaged knee was nothing compared to the mental fortitude required for hours and days of tedious treatment. Brunori attacked the regimen with the same ferocity that she did basketball, taking the process of working her knee back into shape in her own hands. According to her mother, Joan, Kate was determined to keep with, and even beat, the preordained recovery schedule, but when she missed one of those goals, things got especially difficult.

"There were times when Kate would be very upset," Joan said. "She couldn't tell me what was wrong."

Things would get worse before they got better. By August, Kate was given the go-ahead to run and participate in sports again, a huge relief to someone so invested in athletics. She was back on the field, this time playing soccer in August, the first time she had done so since her injury.

Then, without warning, The Curse struck again.

"My leg was in the air, someone actually ran into it. It was the same sensation as before. My stomach dropped because I knew what it felt like. I remember sitting in the grass trying to catch my breath, trying to keep from crying. It was just the same sensation, the same feeling. This is not happening again."

It had happened again, this time in her left knee, and this time it was a torn ACL and meniscus. She was back on the recovery table before she had a chance to be back on the court.

"It was such a freak accident."

A SECOND CHANCE

Halfway through her spring semester at Villanova, Kate Brunori, like many college juniors, was wondering what to do next. The former Hilton Head Prep basketball standout and area player of the year had found success after stardom, excelling as an English major and communications minor in Philadelphia.

To satisfy her hoops fix, she played club basketball, traveling to compete with other schools and bonding with teammates. But she knew it wasn't the same. The wins didn't feel as good. More importantly, the losses didn't sting the way they used to. So when friends suggested she compete for a spot as a walk-on for the Wildcats' varsity squad, she found herself faced with a big life decision, and did what she's always done -- she called Jill.

Jill Brunori's college basketball career is already well underway. This year, as a freshman at Wake Forest, the point guard started every game, averaged 5.5 points and 6.1 rebounds, all the time flustering opponents with her trademark defensive quickness. Her 46 steals were second among Demon Deacons.

Kate knew her younger sister had dealt with the spotlight of ACC hoops, with the crazies of Cameron Indoor -- "It was a fun environment," Jill said -- and the demands of being a Division I athlete. So she asked her, is this the right call?

"I was just thinking about it and talking to my sister -- she had her ups and downs," Kate Brunori said. "I looked at everything that she did. It was an experience that if I never tried, I might look back someday and regret that I never did. I just wanted it to mean something more. I had nothing to lose. Why wouldn't I try?"

Jill, always the first one to support her older sister in times of trouble, was a constant source of encouragement.

"After I found out about my second ACL, I opened my locker and there was this huge card," Kate recalled. "I had no idea who it was from. It was from her. She got her whole art class to make a get well sign."

On the court, Jill was finding success of her own, excelling enough to earn the attention of big-name colleges. As a point guard, she excelled in creating opportunities, hounding opponents on defense, and using her superior quickness and ability to dominate SCISAA opponents. She attributes a lot of that to Kate.

"To be honest, she was the one who made me fall in love with the sport," Jill said. "She's the reason I started playing. She thought me how to compete, she thought me how to play."

When The Curse, in what felt like an inevitable twist, brought destruction to Jill's ACL during her senior season, it was Kate's turn to provide a helping hand. Just a week earlier, Jill had accepted a scholarship offer to play for Wake Forest, whose coaches upheld their end of the bargain.

"I had signed six days earlier," Jill said. She had returned to Hilton Head Prep for her senior season after moving to New Jersey with her mother junior year. "I was pretty lucky, actually. Having seen my sister go through it helped me.

There is a flip side to their mutual admiration, of course, a competitive spirit that runs through nearly everything they do. Joan said the two of them can "turn around and start beating each other senseless over nothing."

As children, their parents used to pair them together in family ping pong, football, soccer, and basketball games to force them to work together.

Coaches recognized that competitive fire as well.

"There's something in the blood," former Hilton Head Prep coach Bob Sulek said. "The girls are absolute warriors. You don't find kids like that anymore."

Mike Colella coached Kate in AAU ball, where he came to understand the incredibly close bond she shared with her sister.

"They're just good, solid, awesome people," Colella said. "(Kate) had the fire in her the first day I met her. That girl is just incredible. Jill would practice with us and all the other girls hated it because she was so good."

IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Joe Brunori blames himself. That is, he accepts blame, and has for years, as the origin of The Curse. It was his knee that supported a promising college running back's career at Lafayette College, and it was his knee that met the helmet on that fateful fall day in Pennsylvania.

He chuckles and sighs, resigned to the question that is coming.

"We've been having a lot of fun with it over the years," Joe says of the injury bug that has haunted generations of his family. But he insists there is nothing spiritually nefarious amiss in the bloodlines. "You can definitely quote me on that one. It's not my fault."

Joe follows his daughter's careers from afar now. When his phone rang late one night in April, with Kate on the other end of the line, he said he didn't quite know what to expect.

"You never want to have a late phone call," Joe said. "She said, 'Dad, everything's OK. I've been asked to walk on.' I couldn't think of anything better for her to do as a senior, playing basketball."

Kate accepted the coaches' offer of a spot on the team. That comes with new responsibilities and a more congested schedule, but the former Prep star, who so often carried the load for her team during that title run, said she is happy with her role.

"I'm so happy just to have made it," Kate said. "If I hadn't tried, I might have regretted it."

Next year, there will be two Brunori sisters on the varsity court, just like it used to be. Of course, they will be competing for different teams, in different roles, each with their own expectations. But given where each of them stood, with athletic careers teetering as precariously as each on her crutches, they are both comfortable with their situation. Their parents are thrilled, too.

"I am so immensely proud of their accomplishments," Joan said. "I'm so proud of them anyway. I'm very much in awe of that accomplishment, to get through what they got through, not once, but repeatedly, not to be defeated in the long run."

Most importantly, Kate can't wait to get back on the court and go toe-to-toe with the best.

"Even if it's only for a year, maybe two, it's all I could ever ask for."

Related stories:

Jill Brunori returns to Hilton Head Prep for senior season, Aug. 23, 2012

Kate Brunori's return comes at good time for Hilton Head Prep, Feb. 3, 2009

Hilton Head Prep gains Kate Brunori but loses to Pinewood Prep, Jan. 31, 2009

Hilton Head Prep's Jill Brunori runs to SCISAA state championship, Oct. 19, 2008

Home-course edge helps Jill Brunori, Sept. 11, 2008

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