Athletics News

Sunday Brunch: O'Connor Award Winners -- The Ideal Teammates

May 6, 2018

By John Heisler

They weren't necessarily All-Americans.

They didn't always lead the league in hits or kills or assists.

Several weren't even the stars on their own University of Notre Dame athletic teams.

But ask their Irish head coaches about them, and the endorsements return in rapid fashion.

That's why these five Irish seniors all won the Francis Patrick O'Connor Award Thursday night at the annual end-of-year Notre Dame athletic celebration in Purcell Pavilion.

Bo Brauer (hockey), Jessica Harris (track and field), Caroline Holt (volleyball), Kathryn Westbeld (basketball) and Mikey Wynne (lacrosse) had one thing in common.

They met the criteria of the O‘Connor family that established the award in 1993 to recognize the memory of Pat O'Connor, a former Irish wrestler who died in 1973 after his freshman season. Pat's father William "Bucky" O'Connor played guard for the Notre Dame football team, earning a pair of monograms in the 1940s.

The award is designed to recognize qualities attributed to Pat: caring, courage, confidence, encouragement, humility, honesty, humor, kindness and patience.

In effect, these individuals qualified as model teammates in the eyes of their coaches who nominated them. They are the graduating individuals determined to best reflect the spirit of Notre Dame in 2017-18:

--Brauer (from Edina, Minnesota) was the outgoing, one-time walk-on who played a major role on and off the ice for the Notre Dame hockey team that advanced to the 2018 NCAA title game.

--Harris (Cockeysville, Maryland) is a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion in the mile who grew into a star, all the while honoring her mother who passed away a few days after the start of Jessica's freshman season.

--Holt (Bloomington, Illinois) as a junior in 2016 played multiple games late in the year with what proved to be a broken leg -- then played a key role in leading the Irish in 2017 back to the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2012.

--Westbeld (Kettering, Ohio) helped the Irish win the 2018 NCAA crown -- in part by overcoming an ankle injury and coming off the bench to play a key defensive role in a second-round NCAA win over Villanova.

--Wynne (Sykesville, Maryland), a SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Council) vice president, ranks as one of the top five goal-scorers in Notre Dame history.

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An avid fisherman who helped create a bass fishing club at Notre Dame, Brauer joined with teammate Dennis Gilbert and the Irish squad in adopting Rudy Chapman, a 5-year-old Irish hockey fan who has been battling Ewing sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

Said Irish hockey coach Jeff Jackson, "Bo could not participate in the NCAA regional due to injury, but we still had him dress and warm up for the games just so the team could benefit from his presence, enthusiasm and positive energy. The other guys fed off his energy."

Brauer played in only three combined games over his first two seasons but worked his way into a more noteworthy role his final two seasons, notching a pair of game-winning goals in 2017-18.

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Harris did not arrive at Notre Dame with great fanfare, yet she broke Irish indoor records in the 600, 800 and 1,000 meters as a freshman.

After suffering a stress fracture late in her freshman season, she rebounded to claim the ACC indoor mile titles as both a junior and senior. In 2017 she helped the Irish distance medley relay team to an eighth-place finish and All-America honors at the NCAA indoor meet, took 10th individually in the mile at the 2017 NCAA outdoor meet and then claimed eighth place and All-America honors in the 2018 NCAA indoor 1,500 meters.

Said Irish associate head coach Matt Sparks, "After her mother's death, Jessica was forced to grow up quickly -- and she found normalcy and contentment with her teammates and comfort in the rhythm of daily life. While she relied on the stability of her team during that trying time, little did she know the impact she was making on them.

"Jessica has experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during her time at Notre Dame. The way she has handled those experiences has been an inspiration to all those she encounters."

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Holt transferred from Loyola (Chicago) with two seasons of eligibility remaining. In her first season as the Irish setter in 2016 she led Notre Dame to an 18-4 record and first place in the ACC until a broken leg sidelined both her and Irish postseason hopes.

She returned as a team captain in 2017, helping Notre Dame to 22 wins -- including victories over ranked opponents Ohio State, Michigan State and Florida State (twice) -- and a spot in the NCAA bracket.

After impressing her teammates while playing multiple games in 2016 with the broken leg, Holt came back from that injury to help her team win six of its final seven regular-season matches in 2017 to qualify for the NCAA Championship.

Said Irish coach Jim McLaughlin, "Caroline showed incredible toughness and dedication to the team by playing on a broken leg. Then she came back and helped our seniors last fall to what they had worked so hard for: an NCAA berth. She played a key role in this program taking a major step toward becoming a premier volleyball program."

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Irish women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw termed Westbeld the sparkplug of the Notre Dame program despite the fact she wasn't a statistical leader.

Said McGraw, "She was a calming force who always put the team ahead of herself and remained cool and collected no matter what was thrown at her. She played through adversity and emerged as a leader because of her maturity and confidence."

After suffering an ankle injury three minutes into Notre Dame's first-round NCAA assignment, her status for the second round versus Villanova was in question. With the score tied at half, Westbeld made her first appearance starting the second half, leading the Irish on a 14-3 run and a 28-8 overall advantage in the third period. She ended up with a plus-30 rating in 16 minutes of play in the 98-72 win -- helping hold the Wildcats without a three-point goal in the second half after the Irish had allowed 10 in the first two periods.

"She did all the little things necessary to make our program successful," said McGraw. "She was always one of the first to step up and lead."

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A starter on the lacrosse field from the first game of his freshman season when he scored six goals, Wynne maximized his Notre Dame experience with his involvement in SAAC and as a member of the Athletic Director's Steering Committee as one of a select group of student-athletes chosen to provide input to the Notre Dame athletic administration.

Meanwhile, after helping Notre Dame to the ACC Championship last weekend, he has accounted for 125 career goals for an Irish team headed to the NCAA Championship for the 13th straight season.

Said Irish coach Kevin Corrigan, "More than anything else, Mikey's relentlessly positive attitude makes everyone around him focus on what is possible rather than what the obstacles are. He is not afraid to stand up and be counted. His sincerity, trustworthiness and reliability are unquestioned in any setting of peers or adults.

"Simply put, Mikey is as good of a teammate and team leader as I have ever been around."

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In any given athletic season, Notre Dame teams seldom lack for star power.

This quintet of Brauer, Harris, Holt, Westbeld and Wynne took its participation with the Irish to another level.

The O'Connors would be particularly proud.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Notre Dame athletic fortunes since 1978.

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