Aug. 20, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the nine-time BIG EAST Conference champion Fighting Irish volleyball team.
With the addition of three nationally-regarded freshmen, the 2009 Irish volleyball team looks to make its name on the national stage after falling just short of an NCAA bid the last two seasons. The Irish return six seniors - including all-BIG EAST performers Christina Kaelin and Serinity Phillips - to go along with fellow all-league choice Kellie Sciacca. In addition, seniors Kim Kristoff, Megan Fesl, Jamel Nicholas and Tara Enzweiler are also set to be the cornerstones of this year's squad while they make their push for their first BIG EAST regular-season title since 2005.
With the loss of two-time captain Mallorie Croal and Justine Stremick (1.11 blocks/set in 2008) to graduation, head coach Debbie Brown and the Irish turn to their talented group of players to fill in the holes left by these two four-year monogram recipients.
The six-person senior class, considered one of the most decorated recruiting classes in Notre Dame's 30-year history, looks to cap their Irish careers in style and will be the key component to the squad's run to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Kaelin, who still has one year of eligibility remaining after sitting out as a sophomore due to injury, bounced back as a junior in 2008 to earn all-league (second team) and All-America (honorable mention) accolades. Her uncanny ability to find open spots in the opposing team's defense is evident by her 3.25 kills/set last year along with a .258 hitting percentage and a team-best 392.0 points.
"After having to sit out her sophomore year due to surgery, she learned an awful lot from being on the sidelines," Brown said. "When she came back last year it allowed her to be a much more efficient hitter. She has become a much smarter hitter and doesn't rely on power alone, so she is able to mix her shots. Christina was certainly was a go-to player for us last year and every expectation will be the same this year."
Patrolling the net alongside Kaelin, Phillips and her on-court instincts should help the two-time all-BIG EAST player improve upon her 2.73 kills/set and 2.30 digs/set as a junior. Phillips is also one of the better blocking outsides in the league (0.74 blocks/s), which allows an ample amount of flexibility in the Irish lineup.
Fesl, Enzweiler and Kristoff have each seen plenty of valuable minutes on the floor for the Irish over the past three years. Fesl can play around the court and Enzweiler should continue to be one of the team's most fundamentally sound and efficient blockers. Kristoff will also be called upon to deliver key blocks and situational serves.
"We have an incredible senior class - they're physically talented, hungry to win and ready to take this program to new heights. But this can't be done with just seniors. Everyone is looking forward to the season and we all have bought into the fact that this is going to be a great year for us."
The four-player junior class brings plenty of firepower to the floor as well. Sciacca lived up to her billing as the AVCA's Northeast Region Freshman of the Year in 2007 with a sophomore campaign that saw her cop all-region honors once again. Already the program's second-best striker in career hitting percentage (.337), Sciacca also led the team with 104 blocks (0.89 blocks/set) in 2008.
The centerpieces of the Irish defense, Megan Dunne and Angela Puente, have each made great strides during their two years on campus. Dunne's improved passing helped her to nearly double her playing time from her freshman to sophomore seasons, and Puente's athleticism has translated into a bulk of tremendous defensive efforts for the Irish.
At the outside hitter position, Stephanie Slatt has shown a great knack for coming up big in pressure situations, especially when she has the ball in her hand behind the service line.
Sophomore Kristen Dealy will look to improve on her award-winning freshman campaign with a breakout sophomore season from the outside. Last season, Dealy led the team in digs (325), total attempts (780) and service aces (30) while carrying a tremendous passing load. Dealy, who was named the BIG EAST Freshmen of the Week (Nov. 17) and found a spot on the BIG EAST All-Tournament team in 2008, has yet to tap all of her potential in an Irish uniform.
Eppink emerged as one of the nation's best high school players last year after finishing a spectacular senior campaign in which she recorded 400 kills, 140 blocks and 42 aces. She will look to make a smooth transition to the college game with her great blocking skills.
A two-sport star in high school, Roof looks to continue her dominance through to a higher level after nearly missing out on the state of Michigan's Miss Volleyball award. Roof has been regarded for her great natural instincts and excellent ability to play a number of positions on the court for the Irish.
Rounding out the recruiting class, Theofilos, a PrepVolleyball.com All-American, will look to break into the lineup at the libero position but could also earn nods as a setter. Known for her competitive fire and enthusiasm on the court, Theofilos may find herself on the court as early as the first week of the season.
Nicholas and Kaelin will serves as co-captains for this year's team.
"It was a fun process selecting the captains this year," Brown noted. "I always solicit feedback from the players, but it was pretty obvious that Jamel and Christina had the complete support from their teammates. Their strengths in leading the team are in different areas so I think they are going to compliment each other really well. I know they are both looking forward to leading the team forward into a great season, and I think that their personalities and their relationships with their teammates are going to enable great things to happen."
Brown enters her 19th season at Notre Dame with a 424-163 (.722) record with the Irish. Joining her on the sidelines will be second-year assistant coach Matt Botsford and Robin Davis, who rejoins the staff after a three-year stint as head coach at Boise State. Adrianna Stasiuk, a 2008 graduate and volleyball All-American at Notre Dame, will serve as a volunteer assistant coach.
The 2009 slate includes eight NCAA Tournament teams from 2008 including national runner-up Stanford. Three squads (No. 2 Stanford, No. 10 Florida and No. 17 Michigan) ended last season nationally ranked.
"This is a very challenging schedule but we have a strong core returning along with a very talented senior class," Brown said. "We want to schedule the best opponents year in and year out. This will give the program the best opportunity to play at the highest level, and we're looking forward to accepting the challenges presented to us this season."
Notre Dame begins the season at home by hosting the Shamrock Invitational from Aug. 28-30. Denver, Stanford and LSU will be the visiting teams.
Xavier will host the Irish along with Tennessee and Michigan one week later (Sept. 4-6) for the Xavier Invitational in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Irish then return home to host the adidas/Notre Dame Invitational while rolling out the carpet for Wisconsin and New Mexico State.
A tri-meet in Tallahassee, Fla., will feature Notre Dame going head-to-head against both Miami (Sept. 19) and Florida State (Sept. 20).
BIG EAST Conference play begins with trips to Connecticut (Sept. 25) and St. John's (Sept. 27). Notre Dame will stay at home for the next two weeks with matches against Villanova (Oct. 4), Cincinnati (Oct. 10) and Louisville (Oct. 11).
Three road matches at Pittsburgh (Oct. 17), West Virginia (Oct. 18) and DePaul (Oct. 23) come before a home Halloween weekend doubleheader with Seton Hall (Oct. 31) and Rutgers (Nov. 1).
The Irish travel to Marquette (Nov. 6) and Syracuse (Nov. 8) before ending the regular season at home versus Georgetown (Nov. 13) and USF (Nov. 15).
The 2009 BIG EAST Conference Championship will be hosted by Louisville from Nov. 20-22. Trailing the tournament will be a single match at Florida on Nov. 28.
The NCAA tournament begins Dec. 3 at selected campus sites with the finals set to be played in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 17-19.
Notre Dame will play the bulk of its home matches in the Joyce Center Fieldhouse as construction in the south dome of the Joyce Center continues throughout the fall.