Aug. 26, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish volleyball team, which claimed the 2009 BIG EAST Conference regular season title and a spot in the NCAA Championship.
On the heels of winning the 2005 BIG EAST Conference regular season and tournament titles, Notre Dame entered the offseason with several unanswered questions and a few gaps in the roster. The departure of five seniors - including a pair of All-Americans in Lauren Brewster and Lauren Kelbley - who steered the Irish that season to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament was offset by a six-person freshman class touted by Volleyball Magazine as the third-best in the nation.
Fast forward four years.
The Irish find themselves in a similar spot entering the 2010 campaign. After capturing the 2009 BIG EAST regular-season crown adding another NCAA Tournament trip to the program's resume, Notre Dame once will once again lose a bundle of experience in six seniors - which also includes a pair of All-Americans in Christina Kaelin and Serinity Phillips - but welcomes six freshmen to the program.
"People look at what we lost, and losing six seniors is huge, but we have a really strong core of players returning," Irish head coach Debbie Brown says. "Each of our upperclassmen have had different roles on the team and bring tremendous leadership to the court. They all have experience and have made significant contributions in the past, which will help us throughout 2010.
"It will be both fun and challenging with the six newcomers. Having that much youth on the team is going to be a positive thing for our team. They are a top-15 class and very, very talented."
Three-time all-AVCA Northeast Region performer Kellie Sciacca will be counted on to help harness that youth during her senior season. Already one of the most efficient hitters in program history with a .343 career average, Sciacca is the lone all-BIG EAST returner and one of the most experienced players on the roster. Taking part in 323 sets through 87 matches played, Sciacca has seen action in every contest since stepping on campus in 2007. Her familiarity with the program will be dividends to a pair of towering freshmen middle blockers in Sam Brown (6-3) and Andie Olsen (6-2). Sophomore Hilary Eppink, who showed flashes of brilliance in her first year with the Irish, could give the team flexibility by playing on the outside while complementing the frontline.
"These returning players have worked really hard during the offseason and have embraced the idea of making this a great year," Brown says. "Our liberos and defensive specialists are some of the most experienced players on the team and in the league."
The pipes will be patrolled by five outside hitters who have a combined 644 career kills, as the team lost starters Kaelin, Phillips and Megan Fesl to graduation. Junior Kristen Dealy has accounted for 641 of those converted attacks, and the third-year starter will be once again be relied upon to be a six-rotation player. Sophomore Marie Roof and senior Stephanie Slatt could get some looks on the edges, while Slatt also will continue her role as a serving specialist. Freshman Andrea McHugh, a member of the 2009 U.S. Youth National Team and a PrepVolleyball.com All-American, could mirror Dealy as an all-around threat on the court. Fellow freshman and 2008 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year Nicole Smith will also be a threat to shoulder the offensive load.
Setting duties will be divided between a pair of highly accomplished freshmen. Maggie Brindock was a PrepVolleyball.com Top 100 Senior Ace and was named to the AVCA All-American Watch List in 2009. Classmate Sammie Brown earned a spot on the USA Girls Youth National Beach Training Team in 2009 and 2010 and participated in the 2009 World Championships in Blackpool, England, with the USA U21 Youth National Beach Volleyball Team. Both setters look to fill the void the left by Jamel Nicholas, who ranked fifth on the program's all-time assists list with 3,094. Nicholas was the lone setter in 2009, accounting for 1,136 of the team's 1,293 assists (and 1,107 of 1,406 in 2008).
"From our first match on August 27 to the end of November and into December, we're going to see a team that is remarkably better," Brown said. "That's part of the challenge we are looking forward to - seeing the team's growth throughout the season and its final product.
"We're counting on the upperclassmen to bring the freshmen along and teach them the ropes of the program. With the renewed energy the underclassmen bring, nothing is stale or boring to them. So from that angle, it will be a very positive experience. The practice gym will be very competitive because we will be so deep in every position. That provides a better atmosphere because the players know they have to be on top of their game in every practice and every match."
Notre Dame was picked to finish third in 2010 BIG EAST Conference regular season play, according to a vote of the league's 15 head coaches. For the first time since joining the BIG EAST in 2005, Cincinnati emerged as the favorite in the BIG EAST Volleyball Preseason Coaches Poll. The Bearcats were unanimously selected, receiving 196 points and all 14 first-place votes. Louisville, the defending tournament champion, was picked second.
"I'm not too surprised by the poll and feel like we're in a good spot by being picked third," Brown says. "Losing six seniors from last season will leave a few questions unanswered. We're excited about competing this season and we're going to do all we can do to defend our regular-season title while capturing the tournament crown as well."
Since the inception of round-robin play in 1990, 19 of the last 20 preseason favorites have advanced to the finals of the BIG EAST Championship. Of those favorites, 15 have captured the tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA Championship, while 13 have taken the regular-season title. However, the last team to be selected first in the preseason poll and win the regular-season crown was Notre Dame in 2004.
Notre Dame starts the 2010 campaign by hosting the Shamrock Invitational at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. Marshall (Aug. 27), Cal Poly (Aug. 28) and Arizona (Aug. 29) will join the Irish to open the season.
"We're excited to have the schedule completed, and we think it will be a very manageable yet competitive schedule for our program this season," Brown says. "We like what we've done outside of conference play to help prepare us for what has been a BIG EAST slate that improves each season."
The Irish will be on the road for the next two weeks with four-team invitationals at Nevada (Sept. 3-4) and Denver (Sept. 10-12). The Wolfpack also welcomes Belmont and Weber State while Notre Dame join Gonzaga and Jacksonville State in Colorado's Mile High City.
The Notre Dame Invitational marks the home return and final tune-up for BIG EAST play with matches versus Delaware (Sept. 17), Santa Clara (Sept. 18) and Dayton (Sept. 19).
"With a young squad going into the season, we'll be tested early, and that will be a good indication as to where we stand and where we need to improve," Brown says.
West Virginia (Sept. 24) and Pittsburgh (Sept. 26) will visit Notre Dame to conclude a five-match homestand and kickoff the BIG EAST portion of the schedule before a four-contest roadswing to USF (Oct. 1), Georgetown (Oct. 3), Louisville (Oct. 9) and Cincinnati (Oct. 10).
DePaul (Oct. 15) will be the second of three home matches that coincide with home football games, follow by a midweek tilt with Western Michigan (Oct. 19).
Five of the next six matches will be played at home with a single road trip to Villanova (Nov. 5) in store to begin the final month of the regular season.
A break in the conference schedule will come in the form of a Nov. 7 match with Northern Iowa, as a twinbill at Rutgers (Nov. 13) and Seton Hall (Nov. 14) wraps up action before the BIG EAST Tournament (Nov. 19-21), which will be hosted by Pittsburgh. The top eight finishers in the BIG EAST regular season standings based on winning percentage will advance to the tournament. The event spans three days and is single elimination. ESPNU will televise the championship game on Nov. 21. The tournament champion will receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA's 30th Annual Division I Women's Volleyball Championship.
The Irish will travel to Long Beach State (Nov. 26) for the second time in three seasons to prep for the NCAA Championship (Dec. 3-18).
Six teams (Arizona, Cincinnati, Dayton, Jacksonville State, Long Beach State and Louisville) on the 2010 slate participated in last year's postseason showdown.