Melissa Brum always wanted to play collegiate volleyball.
And given that during four years at St. Mary's High School in Stockton, she helped the Rams to a 48-0 conference record, earning all-league honors each season (she was named first team her final two campaigns), it would have seemed logical for scholarship offers to flow.
But San Diego, her dream school, wasn't interested. Bay Area programs weren't biting.
Brum dusted off the disappointment and prepared to attend nearby San Joaquin Delta Junior College. Then her club coach called. He'd just spoken to Ed Jackson, the first-year coach at Division II Academy of Art. Jackson was looking for an outside hitter — Brum's position.
Her reaction: Let's do it.
She took her official visit , she loved the school, she loved her future teammates. A whirlwind of excitement. Before she left, Jackson offered her a scholarship. A couple days later, Brum called and committed.
“I would love to join this team and make this program better,” Brum remembers telling her future coach.
Brum recounted this story Saturday, sitting on a wooden bench in the bandbox that is Kezar Pavilion. The sophomore outside hitter had just helped the Urban Knights to their first victory over PacWest Conference rival Cal Baptist. It was a five-set thriller with the back-and-forth flow of a classic.
The 5-foot-9 Brum was her typical, all-purpose self, finishing with a match-high 22 kills and adding 16 digs.
As of Sept. 29, Brum ranked in the top 10 in Division II for points (4.93) and kills (4.47) per set. In early September, she was named the Pac West Player of the Week. In a win over Hawaii-Hilo on Wednesday, Brum had a career-high 31 kills.
“She's doing a phenomenal job,” Jackson said.
Last season, Academy of Art struggled to an 11-17 record. On the court, something always seemed off-key. The returning Knights resolved to change that. They began holding weekly team meetings. They learned their teammates' stories and they realized that each player responds differently to on-court happenings. Some laugh, some yell, some simply need a moment of quiet to resolve it themselves.
They settled upon 10 keys to performance. The most important: Be first, be positive.
Jackson sees the difference.
“When we first came here, two years ago, we spent a lot of time on the volleyball side, the X's and O's, the strategy,” he said. “We didn't really put a lot of time into the team side, our communication with each other. Last spring, we spent a lot of time doing that and we developed a cohesive unit.”
It seems to be working. Entering Thursday's match against Hawaii-Pacific, the Urban Knights were 8-5 overall and 3-2 in the PacWest.
During those spring months, Brum struggled through a medical mouthful of tendinitis, bone bruise and bursitis — all in her hitting (right) shoulder. By summer, she was training with Delta JC coach Molly Mordaunt three times a day, every day except Sunday.
Mordaunt cast a positive aura. For Brum, who has struggled with confidence, that approach proved galvanizing. She realized she had the talent — it was just a matter of tethering it to consistency.
Her findings took the form of mantra: “I am better than I think I am. I can do the things I want to do.”
“That's definitely something I've had to work on,” Brum said. “If I made a mistake before, I would just get so mad that I'd shut down. Molly helped me to learn to be confident. Who cares if I make a mistake? There's 50 more plays to make.”
Newcomer stands out: After a summer spent racing in his native France, Valentin Pepiot only began training with the Academy of Art cross men's country team in August. But at last weekend's Stanford Invitational, the junior showcased his considerable talent, finishing the 8-kilometer course in sixth place with a time of 23 minutes, 43 seconds. It was the best result by a non-Division I athlete. Pepiot was named the national Division II Cross Country Athlete of the Week by a national coaches panel.
They're committed: Following 6-3 senior Josie Little's commitment to Columbia this summer, two more St. Ignatius girls' basketball players committed to colleges last month. Senior Sydney Raggio committed to St. Mary's on Sept. 5. On Sept. 15, her classmate Janessa Manzano committed to Hawaii Pacific.