To say that Corona del Mar High sophomore Natalia Bruening has grown up around basketball might be a bit of an understatement.
Her parents, 6-foot-6 Christoph and 6-foot-3 Julia, met while her dad was coaching her mom on a professional team in Germany. The family moved to Newport Beach when Natalia was 3 years old, and she started playing basketball at the Eastbluff Boys and Girls Club just a couple of years later.
"I didn't really play that much," Natalia Bruening said. "I just sat on the bench, because it was boys and girls [playing together]. I was just on the sideline cheering."
Bruening has come a long way in the nine years since then. She has not just grown up around basketball. She's grown into her own 6-foot-3 frame, and she's also grown into a leader for the CdM girls' basketball team.
The Sea Kings, who are ranked No. 5 in CIF Southern Section Division 3AA, are dangerous this year with Bruening and 6-2 sophomore post player Krista Anderson in the middle. Just ask Newport Harbor and Irvine.
CdM won at the rival Sailors, 44-23, in the Battle of the Bay game on Jan. 7. Bruening, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, played large with 17 points and 17 rebounds. Three days later, the Sea Kings won their Pacific Coast League opener, 47-34, at home against Irvine.
Winning the league opener might not seem like a big deal, but for the Sea Kings it certainly was just that. It was just their third win in league in the last three years. Bruening again played an important, yet different role. She didn't shoot much, but still contributed eight points, matching season-highs with 22 rebounds and five blocked shots.
The numbers are easy to calculate this year. Julia keeps them courtside, on a tablet application. The stat line against Irvine really just highlighted Natalia's maturity. She's willing to do whatever it takes to help CdM go.
"She's putting it all together," CdM Coach Mark Decker said. "I think other teams are game-planning to try to stop Natalia, but she can dominate a game without scoring. She dominated that [Irvine] game in the second half, rebounding and blocking shots. She changes games in those ways, just as much as scoring."
Bruening was a Newport-Mesa Dream Team selection a year ago, when she averaged 10.2 points and 10 rebounds per game. Going into Friday's league game at University, she had upped those averages to 15 points and 12 rebounds per contest, as well as 2.5 blocks. Her goal for the Sea Kings is to win a league title, and she's helped put the team in the position where such talk is realistic.
"Rebounding has gotten a lot better," said Bruening, who has improved her physical strength through both volleyball and basketball workouts. "I've always been told to go strong, and I finally know what it means."
Natalia Bruening also is the rare two-sport athlete who really excels at both sports. Basketball is the sport she's played longer. In middle school, she played at CdM as well as on successful Newport Lightning club teams, featuring players like Anderson and fellow CdM sophomore Kelly Tam, as well as current Edison sophomore Justine Modde and Huntington Beach freshman Frankie Wade.
Those teams were coached by Julia Bruening, who was known as Julia Hodgkins when she starred in both basketball and volleyball herself at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College in the 1980s. She still is just taller than her oldest daughter, but not for long.
"She's like a centimeter taller than me," Natalia said with a smile. "She likes to hold it against me all the time. Depends what shoes I'm wearing."
Now volleyball is the only sport that Natalia plays club, with Orange County Volleyball Club. She is a starting middle blocker for the CdM varsity girls' volleyball team.
She said she likes both sports equally. In both sports, she is very driven.
"I get a little bit more glory for basketball, because I don't get set as much [in high school volleyball]," Natalia Bruening said. "But for club, it's different."
There's another Bruening on the way. Natalia's younger sister, Tatiana, is a seventh grader at CdM and also plays both basketball and volleyball. Yes, she's also tall for her age.
But for now, it's Natalia in charge as the Sea Kings hope to earn more big accomplishments this year. The Sea Kings have advanced to CIF each of the past five years, but never made it past the second round.
Expect Bruening to keep playing big to help CdM get there.