When Jennifer (Helmueller) Brathol went to UW-Green Bay to play volleyball in 1995, she never imagined that it would lead into a lifetime in volleyball.
Upon completing college, Brathol became involved in volleyball instruction in the Twin Cities area. She and her husband are now owners and directors of Kokoro Volleyball in North St. Paul, which is one of the most influential volleyball academies in the Twin Cities area.
In 1999, Brathol began instructing at the Northern Lights Volleyball Club in the Twin Cities. She also began working for USA Volleyball. In 2010, she and her husband, R.T. Luczak, started the Kokoro Volleyball Club. She had remained involved in USA Volleyball until recently, because the growth at Kokoro has caused her to turn all her energies there.
She said there wasn't a club volleyball program in the eastern side of the Twin Cities, which led to their location choice. Kokoro draws from all over western Wisconsin, along with the eastern Metro area. Brathol said there are girls who come from as far as Turtle Lake to compete at Kokoro. Brathol keeps close connections to St. Croix Central. Current St. Croix Central coach Mindy Widiker is an instructor at Kokoro and several current Panthers play on Kokoro teams.
Brathol said the club volleyball business has become a year-round proposition. Their season begins in November after the completion of the high school seasons. Their competition begins in January. It takes a break for May as to not clash with graduations, before heading into the tournament stretch in June. Brathol spent two weeks in Florida in June, coaching Kokoro teams that qualified for the AAU national championships.
Brathol said Kokoro has built a strong reputation because of its results.
"Probably 95 percent of our 18s are going to play in college. We want to find a good fit for them, so they stay for the duration," she explained.
Brathol said Kokoro tries to prepare the girls for healthy, successful lives after high school.
"Our focus is the whole athlete. My degree is in nutritional science. We work with them on how to fuel their body. We teach mindfulness, how to be mindful in stressful situations. We want to help them become really great young women," she said.
Brathol said Kokoro also works with the girls' parents, so they understand the objectives of the total program.
The number of girls competing at Kokoro bears out the club's success. There are more than 200 girls competing on Kokoro teams in the regular season. There are more than 40 coaches involved in Kokoro's 19 teams. And more girls are exposed to Kokoro during the club's summer leagues.
Brathol takes pride in how the girls grow and succeed after they've competed at Kokoro.
"We just use volleyball as a vehicle. We hope the kids have learned the exterior things that will help them in life: commitment, hard work, dedication. I love volleyball, but my passion is empowering young women," Brathol said.
Brathol, who has three children, got her start as one of the top players in St. Croix Central history, which led to her opportunity to play at UW-Green Bay.
Brathol led the Phoenix in digs in 1996 with 236. She was a three-time letterwinner at UW-Green Bay, before transferring to Northern Michigan University for her senior year.
After completing her college career, Brathol played professionally in Europe.
Brathol was part of one of the most successful volleyball stretches in St. Croix Central history in the early 1990s under Coach Beth Monson. Monson said it was already clear in junior high that Brathol was going to be a special player.
"Jen was an elite varsity level volleyball player," Monson said. "Jen was keenly aware of both offensive and defensive skills necessary for successful volleyball. She was dedicated and determined to execute those skills successfully. Her physical fitness, agility and determination were an integral part of achieving her goals at SCC. Jen understood and promoted teamwork and had excellent rapport with her coaches and teammates."
More on Brathol's Kokoro volleyball program can be found at www.kokorovolleyball.com.