Aug 23, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As the University of Notre Dame volleyball team enters a new era as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference they will do so with an experienced squad that is anxious to get back to the NCAA Championship after getting a taste for the sport's highest stage in 2012.
After only losing two seniors last year from a 20-10 squad, the Irish bring back 11 student-athletes, including 10 juniors and seniors, to form a core that is ready and excited to compete in the ACC in 2013.
"We have talked some about team goals, but we specifically didn't want to place exact goals on the team like number of wins," said head coach Debbie Brown. "We want to take it one match at a time. We are excited about the ACC and we want to make a positive statement to the league this season. We are encouraged and we expect to do well in the ACC and in the NCAAs. Those are expectations that we have. We want to take it one match at a time and we want to get better every opportunity we have to play."
Leading the charge this season are junior honorable mention All-Americans Toni Alugbue and Jeni Houser, second team all-BIG EAST selection Maggie Brindock and four-year starter Andrea McHugh, who is making the move to libero as a senior after three years at outside hitter.
Despite several position changes in the offseason, Brown is excited to return not just starters but starters with experience at other positions.
"When a player understands how the whole game fits together it takes their own game to a whole different level," said Brown. "Having players that understand multiple positions can be really beneficial in a long rally where you may be forced to change positions based on something you hit. It allows us to be a little more creative and be calm in any situation."
The Irish will face a formidable non-conference and conference slate that gets started one week from Friday when they head to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and the campus of Middle Tennessee State for the Blue Raider Bash. Notre Dame opens its season against ACC foe North Carolina in a non-conference match that was set before the Irish entered their new conference home. Coincidently, just one month later the Irish travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., to battle the Tar Heels in their first official ACC match.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Irish along with information on the coaching staff and schedule ...
LIBERO / DEFENSIVE SPECIALIST
A bit of newness with a heavy dose of experience will make up this year's batch of liberos and defensive specialists. In as the starting libero is senior co-captain Andrea McHugh. While the veteran has started for three years with the Irish, this year will be her first at libero after three at outside hitter. While the position may be new, McHugh has shown steady ability on defense in the past as she has totaled 889 digs in her career, including finishing third on the team last season with 263.
Brown has been impressed with McHugh's leadership and ability at the position thus far.
"Andrea has really embraced the position and done a great job for us," said Brown. "She is our most consistent passer, has very good defensive range and is a great court leader. She understands the game really well and can even help out the outside hitters when she's behind them by calling out shots for them."
McHugh made the switch to libero in the spring and is taller than most at the position, which helps give her better defensive range.
"She has done a great job of learning the position in just a handful of months," said Brown. "She has embraced it and since she can now concentrate just on defense she has really improved in that area."
Working with McHugh as backup liberos as well as defensive specialists are juniors Erin Klosterman and Kathleen Severyn.
"Both are getting steadier by the day and bring everything to the table that you want in a defensive specialist," said Brown. "Both are solid defensive players with good range that are also solid passers and servers."
Last year Klosterman gained more playing time as the year went on, often coming in as a serving specialist, while Severyn saw action in 27 of the team's 30 matches. The duo combined for 12 service aces and 95 digs.
"The coaches and I have loved that all three bring a ton of energy to practice each day," said Brown. "They talk all the time on the court and are encouraging to their teammates. They definitely set the tone for the defensive effort we expect as they lead by example."
Returning for the Irish at setter is two-year starter Maggie Brindock, who had a breakout junior campaign in 2012. The Rockwall, Texas native totaled 1,104 assists, 234 digs, 109 kills, 69 blocks and 12 service aces along with handling tri-captain duties with McHugh and senior Marie Roof.
"I feel like Maggie has taken her game to a new level each season," said Brown. "She is a two-year starter and just provides veteran leadership on the court each day. There is something about having senior setters that is really fun. They just get everything. They don't get rattled and they understand the offensive philosophies and game plans."
Backing Brindock up is sophomore Hanna Muzzonigro, who appeared in six matches last season.
"We wouldn't have moved Sammie (Brown) to the right side if we didn't have confidence in Hanna and how she was going to progress," said Brown. "She is making great progress and we hope that she can be in a position this year to help us on the court. Her leadership is really good and she is getting better and better at understanding the flow of the game."
Another area that has seen some position switches is in the middle as honorable mention All-American Jeni Houser has moved from the right side to the inside. There she will team with returning starter Andie Olsen and freshmen Simmone Collins and Katie Higgins to form a strong foursome for the Irish.
Houser returns for her junior year after an outstanding sophomore campaign saw her earn first team all-BIG EAST and AVCA all-Northeast Region honors before receiving her honorable mention All-America scroll. Houser proved to be quite efficient from the right side last year as she totaled 432.0 points while hitting at a .324 clip. She also had 379 kills and 89 blocks.
"Jeni has made a smooth transition from the right side to the middle in preseason camp," said Brown. "She hits the slide better than anyone I have ever coached. She is able to hit the line and angles and is great at reading the block. She is also very solid at transition hitting and making herself available to hit from anywhere on the net. On defense she offers a pair of great hands for blocking."
Starting next to Houser will be the senior Olsen. The Oakland, Calif., native had a breakout 2012 season as she totaled 138 kills and a team-high 96 blocks.
"Andie really came into her own last year and we expect her to keep improving," said Brown. "She is a solid blocker and is becoming a strong offensive player too."
Collins and Higgins have come in and hit the ground running and have impressed coaches and teammates alike with their ability to be coachable and to pick things up quickly.
Collins is known for her incredible quickness and jumping ability, while Higgins has worked really hard to make herself readily available in transition.
"Simmone has the ability to be an elite blocker at some point," said Brown. "She can get off the ground really fast on offense and gives the setters a good option. Katie can play between the right side and in the middle and is working hard to learn our blocking scheme."
RIGHT SIDE HITTER
Looking to take over the right side position with Houser moving to the middle is senior Sammie Brown. Brown is another on the long list of players that have changed positions recently as she made the move from setter to right side in the spring.
Despite being a newcomer to the position, Brown brings plenty of experience as she has played in 86 matches throughout her career and also sports impressive sand volleyball experience away from the indoor court. In three years, she has posted 1,464 assists, 411 digs, 89 kills, 57 service aces and 49 blocks.
"Sammie has done a phenomenal job in her move to the right side during the spring and preseason," said D. Brown. "She is a smart and savvy player and has a good arm, which brings good heat and power. She hits the back pin very well. Since she was a former setter she is great in transition and can still set to anywhere on the court. We are very pleased with the progress she has made."
Offering backup at the right side as well as the middle is Higgins. Higgins, a product of Kearney High School in Kearney, Neb., posses a good all-around skill set and can set up a good block as well as hit a slide.
"Katie has played in the middle most of her life but she has played back row too," said D. Brown. She understands the game and is vocal on the court already despite being just a couple of weeks into her college career."
The outside hitter position is stable with three veterans returning including honorable mention All-American Toni Alugbue. Alugbue is coming off a phenomenal 2012 season where she smoothly made the transition from the middle to the outside and turned into one of the best point scorers in the BIG EAST. After posting totals of 390 kills, 272 digs, 68 blocks and 17 service aces, the Del Aire, Calif., native earned first team all-BIG EAST and AVCA all-Northeast Region honors before being tabbed an honorable mention All-American. She averaged 4.00 points per set (452.5 points).
"Toni has already shown improvement from last year during the preseason," said Brown. "She is a year better with her shot selection and has improved on hitting lines and angles while mixing up shots with tips. She is strong for us on the front and back rows. She is over six feet tall and has tremendous range on defense."
Looking to work into the rotation behind Alugbue is senior Nicole Smith and junior Meg Vonderhaar. Smith played in 10 matches last season after missing the entire 2011 season with a knee injury. Vonderhaar played in 16 matches.
"Nicole and Meg are hitting the ball at a high level right now," said Brown. "I feel very confident that they'll be able to contribute this year in multiple rotations.
"We feel like we have a really good group of attackers," said Brown. "All three are really solid players that have been pushing each other in the gym every day. They give us an incredibly strong core of outside hitters and I'm really confident in the job they will do for us this season."
For the third straight season, Brown will have her two assistant coaches back on the sidelines with her. Veteran associate head coach Robin Davis returns for his 10th season on the Irish sidelines, while assistant coach Christy Pfeffenberger is back for her third season. In addition, Denise Van De Walle returns for a second season as a volunteer assistant coach.
"I think we have a great staff that has strong communication and works well together," said Brown. "We have done a great job of balancing the responsibilities of who has what and we have a good balance of competitiveness and encouragement among the coaches. Our ultimate goal is to get the best out of our players. We strive to provide the best possible experience for them that we can and we remind each other of that daily."
Brown enters the 2013 season with an overall record of 617-289 and a 500-206 mark at Notre Dame in 22 seasons.
The squad will play a full 20-match ACC schedule to highlight a 32-match regular season slate in 2013.
"The excitement of our new conference is definitely the highlight of our schedule," said Brown. "We look forward to playing new teams and developing new rivalries within the ACC. It's one of the premier conferences for volleyball and we're very happy to be a part of it. We will be challenged with some nationally competitive teams in the non-conference portion on the front end of our schedule, which we believe will prepare us well for the rigors of the ACC."
The Irish open up the 2013 campaign with four tournaments in the season's first four weeks, including the annual Golden Dome (Sept. 6-8) and Shamrock Invitationals (Sept. 13-14) at Purcell Pavilion, which will take place in back-to-back weeks in the first part of September. The road tournaments include the Blue Raider Bash at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to open the year (Aug. 30-31) and the Kansas Invitational (Sept. 21-22) in Lawrence, Kan., to close out the non-conference schedule. All four tournaments offer competitive foes as the Irish get ready for the ACC slate.
Notre Dame begins its first road trip in the ACC with a trip to the Tar Heel State for showdowns with North Carolina (Sept. 27) and NC State (Sept. 29). The matchup with UNC will actually be the second of the season as the two teams open the 2013 campaign against each other at the Blue Raider Bash in a match that was scheduled before the Irish moved up their ACC venture from 2015 to 2013.
The Irish will next play host to their first two ACC matches as Duke (Oct. 2) and Wake Forest (Oct. 4) invade Purcell Pavilion for the first of 10 league matches at home. Overall, Notre Dame has 16 home matches, up from 13 a season ago.
Following a two-day road swing to Clemson (Oct. 11) and Wake Forest (Oct. 12), the Irish welcome in Miami (Oct. 18) and Florida State (Oct. 20). Notre Dame closes out October with road matches at Virginia Tech (Oct. 25) and Virginia (Oct. 27).
Ten league matches compose the month of November, as the ACC doesn't sponsor a conference tournament. The month opens with Maryland (Nov. 1) and Pittsburgh (Nov. 3) coming to Notre Dame, before the Irish hit the road for four consecutive matches - Syracuse (Nov. 6), Boston College (Nov. 9), Miami (Nov. 15) and Florida State (Nov. 17). The regular season concludes with four home matches - Virginia Tech (Nov. 20), Virginia (Nov. 22), Boston College (Nov. 29) and Syracuse (Nov. 30).
Notre Dame is 78-20 all-time against current ACC teams (including Pitt and Syracuse), including many battles with Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech when those schools were in the BIG EAST. The lone conference opponent that the Irish have never played is Maryland.
Ten of the 32 regular season matches will be against NCAA Championship teams from a year ago, including Sweet 16 team Purdue (Sept. 7). Bowling Green (Sept. 6), Florida State (Oct. 20, Nov. 17), NC State (Sept. 29), Miami (Oct. 18, Nov. 15), Kansas (Sept. 22) and North Carolina (Aug. 30, Sept. 27) also qualified for the NCAA Championship. Of those teams, Bowling Green, Florida State, Kansas and North Carolina joined Purdue in advancing past the first round.
Six ACC matches will be broadcast live on ESPN3, while the other 12 home matches can be viewed on WatchND.tv.
-- Russell Dorn, Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director