Oct. 21, 2011
By Lauren Chval
As the 2011-12 school year dawns, many of Notre Dame's teams will be looking to build on remarkable success achieved in 2010-11. Notre Dame finished 18th in the NACDA Cup, and 14 of its teams qualified for postseason play.
Three of those teams, though, have the luxury of depending on key returning athletes who had the chance to compete at the highest levels while representing the United States at this summer's World University Games.
In all, eight current Notre Dame student-athletes participated in the Games, held this past August in Shenzhen, China - fencers Courtney Hurley, Kelley Hurley, Hayley Reese and Lian Osier; women's basketball players Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Skylar Diggins; and two-time men's basketball captain Tim Abromaitis. In addition, men's and women's diving coach Caiming Xie was part of the United States delegation.
Abromaitis helped the men's USA team defeat Germany to secure a fifth-place finish at the Games. Reese and Osier competed in foil and sabre, respectively, and the Hurley sisters led the women's epee team to a silver medal. And the three-member contingent from the Irish women's basketball team took the USA squad all the way to a gold medal.
Each of those three teams is now preparing to enter this year's campaign under the pressure of having a target on its back - a challenge that Notre Dame teams often face.
The first step is bringing a new year's team together.
"Going into a new season, it's hard to make up for that production you lost," Abromaitis says of the men's basketball squad that lost BIG EAST player of the year Ben Hansbrough and two other starters from last year's 29-7 team. "But I really think we have guys that didn't get the opportunity last year who will be ready to step up this year. I think that we can replicate some of the success we had last year in the regular season and hopefully take it a little further in the postseason."
Novosel says participating in the World University Games was something she dreamed of but never thought possible until her contribution to the success of the women's basketball program last season. She calls her invitation to the USA Trials "the icing on the cake" after making it to last year's national championship game.
The first thing she makes clear when talking about the experience is the perspective it granted her as a player.
"It was amazing to be part of something that was so above the individual," Novosel explains. "All these players are high caliber on their team across the country, but coming together as one unit - it's just so much more than one player. You come together as a team to represent your country, and that is the biggest honor."
Novosel's teammate Peters agrees that coming together was the most important - and hardest - thing the athletes worked through before going to China. The trial process began in May, but after the final cut in August, the USA team only had a week to bond before the games began.
"It's tough having all those people on the same team and trying to balance it out so quickly," Peters chuckles.
Abromaitis says the same thing, sheepishly admitting there were more than a few egos on the basketball court at the outset. The end goal, though, allowed them to keep the bigger picture in focus.
"We started off selfishly," Novosel confesses. "But after the final cut was made, we came together as a team during that training camp. It was a tough week of training camp two-a-days, but at the end it was all worth it."
With three Notre Dame players filling key roles on the USA squad, Novosel jokingly calls it "an extension of our team back home." The Irish had never before had three women's basketball players on the team, and Peters insists she would have been lost without her two teammates by her side.
"It would have been really difficult for me to open up because I'm extremely shy when I don't know people," Peters laughs. "It was a lot easier, especially with Sky there, knowing the ropes. It made the transition a lot easier for me and I'm sure for Nat too."
Novosel attributes the presence of Peters and Diggins to her personal success and the success of the USA team.
"They were my support," she says. "We always just play back and forth with each other. On the court it shows, and off the court, we're really tight, the three of us."
Circumstances were a little different for the Irish fencers - the four have competed on national teams before. But even while the athletes were accustomed to both the pressure of playing overseas and getting used to new teammates, the University Games did offer something new: a big step closer to the ultimate goal of the Olympics.
"It was a shock for me," Osier reveals. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. The World University Games are second only to the Olympics, so it was a great next step in trying to get there."
One thing all of the athletes agree on is how different it was to be in China. Osier will admit it was difficult for her to get used to the food, and Abromaitis says shrugging off the time change was a bit of a challenge. All of them, though, were amazed by the friendliness of the Chinese people.
"If we were all together as a team, we couldn't go anywhere without people jumping in and snapping quick pictures of us," Abromaitis relates.
Peters says their time in China was like stepping into the shoes of a celebrity. Even while participating in on-camera interviews, the athletes were approached by fans for pictures. Osier says she was amazed by how much they simply loved Americans.
The stage will be even bigger next summer at the 2012 London Olympics. The fencers, in particular, are focused on the competition looming on the horizon, but Osier says they also hope to capture another NCAA title this year after bringing one home last season. That goal of a championship is something the fencers share with both men's and women's basketball.
The women, Novosel says, are especially hungry after their success in China. After such a close call in the NCAA championship game last spring, coming home with the gold from China made the trio even more determined to capture Notre Dame's second-ever women's basketball national championship next spring.
"Someone told me I was a world champion and I just could not believe it," Novosel recalls. "To this day, you still have to pinch me. The medal was amazing, having it around my neck. It was heavy, and it just made me want to have another medal come March. It just motivated us to come back here and and start working toward this year."
For Diggins, this summer's gold was her second on the international stage, coming on the heels of the gold she and the U.S. women's team won at the U19 World Championships in 2009. But according to Diggins, this win is closer to her heart simply because she earned and shared it with her Irish teammates.
"It's an amazing feeling, and this is the first time I got emotional up there, with my teammates being up there," Diggins professes. "To be up there with my teammates, with somebody that I'm familiar with, being a bridesmaid in the NCAA championship, it's good to be the bride in this game. So, I'm glad that we were able to share that moment together."
With a bachelor's degree in finance and an MBA from the Mendoza College of Business in hand, Abromaitis returns for a fifth season. His age and his experience - both on the Notre Dame court and overseas in China - make the younger players look to him as a true leader. He, too, is keen on success in March.
"This experience helped me elevate my own game," says Abromaitis, who will join Scott Martin as a co-captain of this year's Irish squad "But in looking forward, I think Scott and I have taken the lead and tried to push guys to work hard, because we have some pretty high goals for the upcoming season."
Novosel, Peters and Diggins agree that now is the time for them to step up and be leaders. The women's basketball team is the top-ranked team in the country in a number of national polls, but there is a lot of work to be done if they want to live up to that billing.
"This summer, I think the three of us just learned a lot of patience in trying to work with people you don't know and learning their games," Peters remarks. "I think it is going to help us right now in trying to work with the freshmen and adjust their games to how we want to play. It's about the team as a whole."
As Novosel says, the challenge greatly transcends the individual.
As the three sports move into their seasons with incredibly high goals, the Irish are lucky to have leaders who have a little extra experience in what it means to build and be a part of a team.