GLASFORD — Illinois State assistant coach Luke Yaklich attended one of Illini Bluffs High School’s first practices of the season. Head coach Dan Muller also showed up at practices and was at four or five home games, including the first.
This spring, Muller attended Illini Bluffs baseball games.
It all made Taylor Bruninga feel like “a priority,” and on Tuesday the 6-foot-8½ all-state forward rewarded the Redbird coaches for their commitment to him. Bruninga signed a national letter of intent a few hours after announcing late Monday night on his Twitter account that he had committed to ISU.
“They were there the whole year,” Bruninga said Tuesday outside the Illini Bluffs gym in which he starred. “I came home every night and had five or six letters from Illinois State in my mailbox. I just felt like throughout the whole thing they really made me a top priority.”
A Class 2A first-team all-stater, Bruninga averaged 33.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots per game. He shot 60.4 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from 3-point range and 88.2 percent from the free-throw line.
Listed at 6-7 to start the season, he has grown to 6-8½ and weighs 207 pounds.
"We are incredibly excited to welcome another great student-athlete from the state of Illinois to our basketball program," Muller said in announcing Bruninga’s signing. "Taylor had one of the best high school seasons of any player in the state and is deserving of all his postseason accolades.
"When you factor in the type of worker and competitor Taylor is, we believe he is only scratching the surface of what he will be as a player. We are looking forward to helping Taylor continue to develop his talents on the court, as well as help him excel academically here at Illinois State."
The leading scorer and rebounder in Illini Bluffs history, Bruninga becomes the fifth player on next year's team from Illinois. He had narrowed his choices to ISU and two of the Redbirds’ Missouri Valley Conference rivals, Loyola and Northern Iowa.
Bruninga said he was swayed by the “family feel” of the Redbird program.
“I was over there for my official visit (earlier this month) and I really fell in love with it,” he said. “I feel like I really bonded with the players a lot. The distance from home was a big thing, too. My whole family can come watch games … friends, family.”
Bruninga also likes the Redbirds’ style of play, particularly the way “their forwards work inside and outside.”
“Coach Muller showed me a lot of footage of (senior) Deontae Hawkins from last year, kind of how he worked inside and then took his guy outside as well,” Bruninga said. “I feel like I have a little bit of the same skill set.”
Bruninga averaged 25 points per game as a junior, when he was listed at 6-5. He was about 6-1 as a freshman and 6-4 as a sophomore, Illini Bluffs coach Clay Vass said.
Also a first-team all-state pitcher in baseball, Bruninga was being pursued by colleges for that sport. He said Bradley and Illinois State were among the schools to send coaches to watch him pitch last summer.
He said it would be “really tough” to say goodbye to baseball. As for possibly doing both at ISU, he said, “If I could somehow make it work I might consider it. But basketball is my top priority. They’ve been the ones who’ve been talking to me the most and that’s what I’m there to do.”
Vass called Bruninga "a very well-rounded player" who met every challenge his coach put before him throughout his career.
"I told the college coaches who came in here, 'You tell him what you want, you set some realistic goals for him and point him in the right direction, he'll accomplish every one of them.' That's just the kind of kid he is,” Vass said.
Bruninga's signing comes a week after second-team all-MVC pick MiKyle McIntosh, a 6-7 forward, announced he will not return for his senior season.
Bruninga becomes the Redbirds’ fourth recruit, joining 6-4 guard Zach Copeland of City College of San Francisco, 6-4 point guard Elijah Clarance of Sweden, who plays at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Md., and Lake Land College 6-6 guard William Tinsley, a former Ridgeview High School star.
Bruninga's great uncle, Duane Bruninga, ranks 47th on the Redbirds' career scoring list with 979 points from 1963-67.
“I talked to him quite a bit. He really enjoyed his time there and I thought it would be cool to have another Bruninga in a Redbird uniform,” Bruninga said. “I’m excited about that, too.”