Aug. 25, 2011
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish volleyball team, an experienced crew that will look to take the program back to the top of the BIG EAST Conference and on into the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.
Notre Dame joined the BIG EAST Conference prior to the 1995 season and proceeded to win four straight league tournament titles. Five more crowns would follow.
Since it last hoisted the hardware in 2005, Notre Dame has been unsuccessful in claiming the conference title in each of the last four seasons, the longest stretch in program history.
But that could all come to a screeching halt in 2011 for an Irish squad picked second in the BIG EAST preseason coaches poll behind defending champion Louisville.
"We have a great nucleus returning from last year with great experience to boot," Irish head coach Debbie Brown says. "Even though we reloaded the roster with a six-person freshman class last season, they all played and made significant contributions. That will be a key factor in our success this year. We may be bottom-heavy in terms of players, but we've got the talent to get us back to where we want to be."
Yes, the Irish want to be back on top of the BIG EAST, and yes, the Irish want to become a player on the national scene. Having missed out on the NCAA Tournament in 2010 with a squad that had to deal with the loss of six graduating seniors - including three All-American honorees - from 2009, the balance of experience, depth and youth provides plenty of smiles under the Irish eyes.
"The freshmen coming in add tremendous balance to this roster," Brown says. "They all bring a high level of volleyball to the court and they're able to push everyone each day in practice.
"You'll see a tremendous amount of improvement in this team from the opening to closing days of the regular season, and once it hits its peak we hope to keep rolling."
Brown calls the improvement of the sophomore class "substantial" since 2010 while noting a large part of that progress was the individual commitment it showed to better its skills on the court while progressing in the weight room.
"When we had a six-person senior class in 2009, we didn't have to do much teaching in terms of our system, as they were familiar with those things," Brown says. "It was nice to walk into the gym knowing you had a team with that kind of a core, and that's what we're seeing in the team right now."
"Frenchy and Kristen both lead in different ways," Brown says. "They can assist and feed off of each other, and both are respected by their teammates and the coaching staff. They set an incredible example and are very dedicated to this team. I really trust them and their leadership."
That trust embedded in the co-captains has also been bestowed upon a pair of floor captains in sophomores Sammie Brown and Maggie Brindock. Not once in Debbie Brown's 21 seasons at the helm of the program have the two lone setters on the roster been in the same academic class. Often times the setters are staggered by class, giving way for the elder to groom the apprentice.
"The staff has taken more of a mentoring role with the setters, which is not a bad thing," Brown says. "We've spent more time with them than we have with previous setters to make sure they understand the concepts of the program. As incoming freshmen, they were in a tough situation having to be a vocal and confidant presence on the court. Both of them were up to the task during their first go-around, and we expect them to be even better this year.
"I give both Maggie and Sammie so much credit, as neither had someone they could look up to and learn from by example. I give a lot of credit to them for the level at which they have their game right now in terms of understanding offensive strategies and team strengths. They will continue to compete with each other while supporting each other the whole way."
Both Brindock and Brown are very accomplished, yet different in their strengths. And when you look at the players to which they'll be dishing the rock, the same could be said as well.
"We basically have seven players that could play on the left or right side for us depending on how things shake out," Brown says. "Andrea had a great freshman season and those numbers speak for themselves. Kristen has battled some injuries but is capable of taking over a match when the occasion calls for such. With so many options and so many athletes at the outside, this offense will be fun to watch."
There is plenty of flexibility in the middle with junior Hilary Eppink and sophomores Andie Olsen and Sam Brown. Alugbue and Houser make for an interchangeable mix of five players who will vie for time in the heart of the court.
"Hilary played a lot of rightside and we've got the liberty to move many of our players around as needed," says Brown. "All of our middles can hit a high ball, a quick set and a number of shots. We're extremely versatile in that spot considering the blocking schemes and systems we use. Three of the five have significant time in that role which will help us a lot."
A proven winner and competitor, Silva will be accompanied in the back row by freshman Kathleen Severyn. Silva, who gained national exposure by playing with the U.S. A2 program this past summer, has been a cog in her role as libero and defensive specialist since joining the Irish squad in 2008.
"Frenchy and Kathleen have both done a great job in practice, and it's nice having someone of their caliber on each side of the net when we're scrimmaging. They bring consistent passing skills and a spark on defense. Both do a great job of reading the court and taking charge of things. Kathleen has fit in nicely and she's been able to step right in and not miss a beat."
That beat will take its tune Aug. 26 when Notre Dame starts off the season by playing host to Eastern Michigan, Idaho and Butler during its annual home-opening Shamrock Invitational.
The first of two westward trips comes one week later at the Stanford Invitational (Sept. 2-3), where the Irish are slated to face the host Cardinal and St. Mary's.
A second home tournament, the Golden Dome Invitational, will see Lipscomb, Portland and Valparaiso hit Notre Dame's home floor from Sept. 9-11.
Before starting league play the Irish will travel to Wisconsin for the InnTower Invitational (Sept. 16-17) while facing the Badgers and Western Michigan.
Four straight home league matches features a lineup of Georgetown (Sept. 24), Villanova (Sept. 25), Cincinnati (Oct. 1) and defending BIG EAST Conference Tournament champions Louisville (Oct. 2).
That stretch comes before a five-match roadswing capped off with a double dip at Hawaii (Oct. 17-18).
"The opportunity to play at Hawaii is one you don't want to pass up, because they're always a very strong team," Brown says. "Especially in the midseason, it's important to take advantage of those opportunities. Not only is the team very good but also the environment is one of the best in the nation. It's a fan base that really appreciates volleyball and good play. It's not always necessarily hostile, as good play from both teams will be applauded. It's a great experience to play in front of that many people and at that level of volleyball.
"Fall break is a good time for us to get away and spend some extended time together. It will be a trip that pulls the team together and makes us stronger. In every aspect, it will be a great opportunity for us. To be on the islands, see the sights and enjoy the beauty will be a welcomed opportunity."
The Irish will also play home matches against USF (Oct. 23), Seton Hall (Nov. 5) and Rutgers (Nov. 6).
The 2011 BIG EAST Tournament (Nov. 18-20) is set to take place in Milwaukee, Wis., on Marquette's home floor.
"I really think the conference is definitely moving in the right direction," says Brown. "The more competitive it becomes, the better it is for all of us. We are getting in a position where we could have as many as four or five teams in the tournament each year. The non-conference scheduling is an aspect of that, so when conference season comes around the teams are battling really well against each other. It will be a tough conference to go through the season undefeated because of the top-to-bottom strength."
Sandwiched between the BIG EAST and NCAA tournaments will be a Nov. 25 meeting at Dayton.
San Antonio's Alamodome will be the final destination for the NCAA Championship (Dec. 15-17). Opening rounds of the tournament will be played at campus sites and predetermined regional institutions.
Getting through what is always one of the most competitive and ambitious schedules in the nation will rely not only heavily on the players, it will also hinge on the cohesiveness of a revamped Irish staff.
"I'm really looking forward to working with this staff," says Brown. "In the short time we've had to prepare together, we're working together very well. I've known Robin for a number of years and that stability is really important for the players as they know there is strong continuity in the staff.
"Christy is exactly what we needed in terms of someone who has a tremendous passion for the game. She was a strong defensive player in college and still has that defensive mindset. Christy can give everyone tremendous insight in how to take advantage of what the defense gives you."
Solidifying the staff is the promotion of Alisha Ewing to operations specialist.
"Having Alisha on staff as a full-time employee is huge," Brown says. "She's been our primary go-to when it comes to film, camps, practices and travel. She allows us to coach more, and she was very deserving of her promotion."
The pieces are all in place. Now it's time to put the puzzle together.