April 16, 2007
Submitted by Chris Masters, Assistant Sports Information Director
Greetings once again, BasketBloggers ... sorry it's been so long since our last chat, but as you might know, I was kind of tied up with what turned out to be one heck of a stretch run for the Irish women's basketball team. In fact, I think that, at least from where I sit, this season might be one of the most unique and special in recent memory.
I'm not a big fan of the end of the season. Gotta be honest - I mean, the finality of the situation, just knowing that unless you're playing on the biggest stage of them all in early April, it all didn't quite go according to plan. And then there's the realization that you've got six long months to kill before preseason practice gets going, and another three weeks before you even get to play another meaningful game with a chance to start rinsing out the sour taste from the end of the previous year.
Yet, somehow this season seemed different. Don't get me wrong - when we walked off the floor at Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center back on March 20, there wasn't one person among us who was thrilled with just playing North Carolina tough. In fact, we all knew that not only could we have won that game, we should have won it. We had the Tar Heels playing our style of ball, they were frustrated, they were anxious, and we were playing free and easy. And once again, Muffet and the Irish coaching staff came through with a brilliant game plan against a top-seeded opponent that no one outside our program thought we had a chance to beat.
(One quick sidebar - when do you think the national media will finally get around to recognizing Muffet as one of the best big-game coaches around? She's got over 500 career wins, including 52 over ranked opponents, and just about every year, Notre Dame goes into the NCAA Tournament, picks off a higher-seeded team away from home, goes to the Sweet 16 and beyond, and still goes unnoticed. Anyone remember Purdue '96, Texas '97, Texas Tech '98 and Kansas State '03, not to mention the near wins over Penn State in 2004 and Carolina this year? It's high time her name is mentioned with the best in the business.)
But once the sting of the UNC loss wore off, it was hard not to be encouraged and excited about what the future holds for this team. Don't forget that nobody gave us much of a chance to do anything this year ... everyone knows about how the BIG EAST coaches picked us to finish 11th in the conference in their preseason poll, and that was before Lindsay Schrader went down with her season-ending knee injury. Guess that seemed to be a recurring theme with coaches this year, as we didn't even get a single vote in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll all season long until we earned 50 votes in the final poll taken after the NCAA Tournament. We also barely got a mention in the AP (media) poll this year -- in fact, I even had one media member come up to me at the BIG EAST Tournament and tell me that, even after posting 19 wins against a top-30 schedule, including three ranked victories and 10 wins in the BIG EAST, we were probably only going to get in based on our "reputation." Talk about no respect ... were he still alive, Rodney Dangerfield probably would have signed on as an Irish season ticket holder.
As I said, this season seemed different from any other, and that includes the off-season. The minute we got back on campus, every one of the players and coaches was chomping at the bit to get back in the gym and start preparing for next year. And that's exactly what they've done, through individual workouts, lifting sessions, and film breakdowns with the coaches. They took a break for last week's awards banquet, which was a great experience for everyone (check out the Fighting Irish All-Access media player for the season highlight video, as well as speeches by all of the award winners, including our two seniors, Crystal Erwin and Breona Gray), but then it was right back to work.
So, in a way, the North Carolina game was a beginning, not an end to our season. It was the beginning of the next stage in the growth and development of our program, and that future is exceptionally bright. We've got six of our top seven scorers coming back, including All-America guard Charel Allen, and Lindsay is just about to be cleared by our team doctors to resume scrimmaging with the team. Then you mix in three very talented incoming freshmen, who should be tremendous complements to our returning players, and you've got the makings of something pretty special.
You can't discount the experience factor in how this year played out, and how it will help us down the road. A lot of times, we had three freshmen on the floor at one time, even as late as the final seconds of our NCAA Tournament first-round win over Cal. Part of our goal at this year's NCAA Tournament was to give our younger players every chance to experience what it's like to play under the bright lights of the postseason, and I think they all came through with flying colors.
Now, two of our rookies are going to get a chance for even more seasoning during the summer. For those folks who attended our banquet, Muffet broke the news that Ashley Barlow and Melissa Lechlitner have accepted invitations to take part in the USA Basketball Women's Under-19 National Team Trials May 17-20 in Colorado Springs. Charel Allen also was invited for the same trial dates, although she will be trying out for a spot on the USA Under-21 National Team. We're still waiting for official word from USA Basketball on the details of the trials themselves (which is why you haven't yet seen a formal release on und.com), but without question, this is one of the largest contingents of players Notre Dame has ever sent to Colorado Springs at one time.
Of course, with this great news comes a tinge of disappointment. Some folks may have heard we were planning to travel to Spain for an exhibition tour in mid-May, shortly after final exams ended and right during the time those three USA Basketball invitees will be in Colorado. Without those three, we'd only have six active players for the trip (incoming freshmen aren't eligible), so obviously it didn't make a whole lot of sense for us to go. Thus, our foreign tour has been put off for the time being, but hopefully, it'll be rescheduled soon.
One of the other exciting things we have to look forward to is the continued and mushrooming support from our fans. At our home games this season, we started a new tradition of assigning an individual player to each of the sections at the Joyce Center, as a means of connecting even further with the team and program. Believe me, the fans in these sections took this new concept and ran with it like nothing I've ever seen, bringing signs and cutouts, wearing custom-made t-shirts and screaming their heads off in support of their favorite players and, of course, the whole team! Ashley Barlow's sections (16-17) won a very close vote as the most spirited fan group this year, and as a reward, they're getting set to enjoy a pizza party with Ashley (and some special guests) Wednesday night at the Joyce Center. We're also planning a reception for our first-year season-ticket holders at the end of the month to give them a behind-the-scenes look at our program.
I just want to extend a special thanks to all our fans for their tremendous support this year. We couldn't have been nearly as successful at home all season long without you. So, I'm very pleased to now turn over the BasketBlog to the pride of Goshen, Ind., and the "mayor" of Ashley's Army this season, Dee Conn. Stay tuned for more insights throughout the off-season and in the meantime ... GO IRISH!
My involvement in team sports at Notre Dame began back in the 80's when I was a volunteer for Special Olympics. The National Special Olympics were to be held at Notre Dame, and one year prior to that event, the State games were moved there to test the facilities and work out the bugs. One afternoon during a break, I took a walk to the basketball court and sat there alone wondering what this place was like when it was filled to capacity with cheering fans watching a game that could only be described as "Hoosier Hysteria." I got that chance twice.
The first time was in 2004, when I watched visiting Connecticut lose to the Irish in an exciting game. Having been a fan of Diana Taurasi, it was great to see her in person and really grasp what an athlete she is. The crowd was amazing and the students rushed the floor after that win. The second time I saw the Joyce Center filled to capacity was in 2005 when Tennessee came to town. Hometown favorite Shanna Zolman brought fans from all over northern Indiana and the buzz in the building was intense. Again, it was an awesome experience to watch Shanna's talents up against those of Megan Duffy. The Irish took a loss, but the mood was not depressed. Fans had received their money's worth seeing two worthy teams coached by amazing coaches in Muffet McGraw and Pat Summitt.
This year, I decided to become a Notre Dame season-ticket holder. I was searching for an outlet that would keep me in touch with youth and be able to meet new people. I can honestly say that my expectations were exceeded in untold ways this season. At the first Irish exhibition game against Lake Superior State, my friend and I were approached to draw a player's name out of a hat and our section would cheer for that player. It sounded innocent enough, so we agreed. At halftime, we were all assembled to draw these names and the real intent of this exercise became clearer. We had really been asked to spearhead the enthusiasm for our section, and they even had a clever name for our volunteer position; "Mayor!" That cracks me up because most people don't know that at my house I have a yard sign that says "Dee Conn for Mayor." It's a little joke that I pull out every four years and put in my friends' yards and they pass it around.
Back to the experience of drawing Ashley Barlow's name -- WOW, what an experience in a span of about 15 seconds! My first thought was "Who is this?" It may have even shown on my face, because (coordinator of basketball operations) Stephanie Menio quickly said, "Oh, she's awesome! She's one of our freshmen." My next thought was that she probably wasn't going to play much, but we would find a way to be obnoxious about her anyway. Ashley, I hope we accomplished that goal! Ashley amazed us in that first game against Lake Superior State. Following the game, my friend, Kathye Parrish, and I went down to meet Ashley and get our pictures taken with her. From then on, we were hooked on Ashley. I believe in divine intervention, and would attribute the following experiences to that and a need was met beyond my wildest dreams.
Cheering for Ashley has meant teamwork from our sections. I want to thank all the fans who supported her. Without the fans, none of the enthusiasm would have come across as successfully as it did. Our section assembled a paper chain three football fields long and ran it through our section at the Indiana - Notre Dame game. Fans in the arena could easily see our big white A for Ashley. We had fun with balloons, signs, glow necklaces, flashing lights, and a big thank you goes out to the donor of the Ashley's Army sign.
This home season was extraordinary in the fact that the team experienced only two losses the entire season. But you can't really measure the losses without mentioning the loss of Lindsey Schrader. Her return to the team next season gives the fan base a new level of anticipation as we also await the arrival of the new freshmen. Notre Dame women's basketball is a great experience for all ages. I've been able to bring my students, and my parents to the games and know that the halftime entertainment and the exhilaration of the athleticism is ageless. Being a part of the Notre Dame family as a season-ticket holder will give you a renewed hope for the future as you watch these athletes who have set goals, worked hard, learned community service, and teamwork. The future rests in the hands of our youth, and it is exemplified at Notre Dame.
The athletes on the court aren't the only inspiration, however. The cheerleaders work hard at routines, synchronizing their goals with what the team needs, and with what will entertain the crowd. The pep band can be counted on for crowd enthusiasm. Behind the scenes, they also have set goals, and worked hard to be part of the total package of the Irish women's basketball experience. The concession stands give community-based organizations the opportunity to raise money that will fund their outreach programs. The total package exists at Notre Dame -- academics, athleticism, community outreach, and service.
I want to end by saying congratulations to Tennessee as this year's NCAA champion. I'd also like to recognize Rutgers for their accomplishments as the national runners-up. Next year will hold many opportunities for our Irish. The door is open, walk through and meet your destiny.
First-Year Notre Dame Women's Basketball Season-Ticket Holder