By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Fresh off a Northeast Conference title in 2007, the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds were already good when Kyle Robinson took over the team. Since then, though, he has turned them into a powerhouse. They have won four NEC titles, Robinson has won three NEC Coach of the Year awards and the team currently has a 30-game winning streak in NEC games.
Now it’s time for the Blackbirds to turn their attention nationally.
“This is an amazing team we have here right now,” Robinson said. “When I first got here, they had good players, but it wasn't really a program. It was kind of this door that was swinging and people were coming in and out. So we took some time to build a program. It didn’t happen overnight, but I think we’re ready to take it to the next level.”
The Blackbirds had a tough non-conference schedule last season, which ended in a loss to No. 2 Penn State in the NCAA tournament. This year, their non-conference games are even tougher, with matchups scheduled against UCLA, Michigan State and some other top teams in the nation.
“We definitely wanted to go further last season, but we were happy to give [Penn State] one of their toughest matches of the year. I felt the way we played them validated our season. Part of the job right now is to teach the girls the mental toughness they need to go further.
“It doesn't help us to play competition that is not going to challenge us physically and mentally or that's not going to force us to have higher standards to live by. We're right there or even better than some of these other teams. I won't go and face a team or play in a tournament that isn't going to help us.”
In addition to constantly challenging themselves, the Blackbirds have also set up a program where they’ll scour the planet to find players who fit into their system — players with strong work ethic who bring a no-nonsense attitude to the court. It’s part of the reason why on this team of 12 there are seven players from Europe or China.
“We definitely recruit locally and we do it heavily, but a lot of the American players look at us differently than the international students,” Robinson said. “We’re looking for a certain type of player, so sometimes, the kids that are interested in coming here don’t fit into that mold and we’re forced to expand our search. As you can see, we’re willing to go all over the world if we have to.”
Furthermore, this Blackbird’s squad only lost one player to graduation last season — Jessica Rice. Rice was one of the biggest leaders on the team, but the players she leaves behind are pretty incredible, including Annika Foit, the back-to-back NEC Player of the Year; Vera Djuric, the three-time NEC Setter of the Year; and Adriana Vinas Joy, the NEC Libero of the Year for the last two seasons.
“Keeping the team together is going to be a really big thing,” said Djuric. “Taking this next step forward is going to be hard, but it’s much easier this way because we’re already on the same page. We know what to expect from each other and everyone on the team is focused on getting to the next level instead of worrying about fitting a new team together. Getting to the next level is something we are always talking about.”
The Blackbirds open their season with a tournament in Los Angeles on the weekend of Aug. 29 and won't be back in Brooklyn until Sept. 10 when they take on Fresno State. The Blackbird Invitation takes place on the weekend of Sept. 12 with Northern Kentucky, Boston College and Temple University coming to town in what will be an elite tournament and a good test of where they stand nationally.