Aug. 27, 2003
After losing three all-conference performers to graduation and welcoming six freshmen to the fold, the 2002 University of Notre Dame volleyball team posted a 24-8 record, captured its seventh BIG EAST championship in eight years of league play, knocked off a top-10 team for the first time since 1995, and earned the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Championship.
Heading into this season, the Irish aim for even greater heights, with 12 monogram winners, including all six starters, returning in 2003. Head coach Debbie Brown, who has recorded a 300-102 (.746) mark in 12 seasons at Notre Dame while helping the Irish to 20-plus victories on 11 occasions, thinks her latest squad has the right mix of talent and experience to do something special.
"We have high expectations," says the three-time BIG EAST coach of the year. "We are going to take it a day at a time and a match at a time, but we do feel like this could be a great year for us."
In contrast to the '02 squad, which featured four first-year starters, this year's Notre Dame team has a great deal of experience. More than just having logged games on the floor, the '03 nucleus has already experienced tremendous success, including upsetting #10 Pepperdine in the Joyce Center a year ago.
"I think going into this year, from a mental standpoint, the experience we gained last year will be a huge positive aspect," says Brown. "The fact that we did play a tough schedule and had some good wins last year definitely will help us this season. You have to get over that hump and just say, 'We are going to be able to compete with anyone in the country.' That's how we are heading into this season - feeling like the leadership and the returning experience are both going to be positive factors for us."
One of the best blocking units in the nation is another strength for the Irish. Notre Dame's net play caused opposing hitters to find attacking against the Irish akin to hitting against a brick wall a year ago, with Notre Dame converting 3.66 blocks per game, the second-highest average in the nation. With the entire group responsible for that gaudy number returning in '03, foes once again figure to be concerned about scoring on the Irish. According to Brown, it is a combination of talent and great coaching by assistant Robin Davis that makes this group such a force at the net.
"We have the personnel to be a great blocking team," says Brown. "With the personnel we have right now, where so many of them are able to play at a great height above the net, blocking should be one of our strengths. That combined with excellent coaching by Robin - that is his area of expertise - and just being able to dedicate the time to blocking, make us strong in that area. That has to be one of our strengths, and we certainly anticipate that it will be again this year."
Leading the '03 Irish will be senior co-captains and twin sisters Jessica and Kristen Kinder. The latter will be serving as a captain for the second consecutive season.
"They bring a lot to our team as captains, highlighted by their work ethic and competitive drive," says Brown. "They always challenge themselves and their teammates to get the best out of themselves. I think the combination of the two of them will be really good for us. They love competing. I think it is going to be really fun to coach them and work with them throughout the year."
For the third straight year, Kristen Kinder will be an important cog in the Irish offensive machine. Kinder, the 2001 BIG EAST setter of the year and a second-team all-league selection a year ago, is on pace to finish her career with the third-highest total of career assists in Notre Dame history. Her career average of 11.16 assists per game also is the third best in school history.
"Her continued leadership is huge for us, and she has progressed as a setter," says Brown. "It has been unbelievable from year to year to see the growth she has made. She was not a starter her freshman year, but she came in to lead the team as a sophomore and a junior and will do so again as a senior. She has matured to a point where she understands the game really well and can execute really well."
Also expected to contribute at setter is sophomore Kelly Burrell, who saw enough action as a rookie to record 175 assists. She may see more time on the court in '03.
"Kelly set a lot in spring practice, so she got a lot of match experience and has grown in terms of her technique and strength and conditioning. She has a good understanding of the game. She doesn't have the experience Kristen does in the setting position, but she is someone we can definitely use, and we plan on using her a lot."
Kinder and Burrell will have a bevy of offensive weapons to choose from. Junior Emily Loomis, the 2002 BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player and a first-team all-conference honoree, started at outside hitter each of the last two seasons and figures to be a dominating attacker on both sides in 2003. Loomis, the '03 BIG EAST outdoor high jump champion as a member of the Irish track and field team, slammed a team-high 400 kills (3.70 per game) a year ago.
"Emily is such a phenomenal athlete and has made huge strides as a volleyball player and a competitor," says Brown. "The height she is able to play above the net is pretty unique. Not many players in the country are able to do that. She can dominate at the net. Throughout the fall and spring last year, her blocking became phenomenal. She also became a go-to hitter, so we will depend on her heavily, especially for net play."
Jessica Kinder returns for her second year as a starter at outside hitter. One of the top all-around players on the team, she led the Irish in digs (319) and service aces (53) a year ago, while notching 255 kills (2.38 per game).
"I think with her knowledge that she is one of our steadiest players and that she is going to be relied on heavily for passing, defense and leadership, Jessica will excel this year," says Brown. "I think she is just going to enjoy it and go out, compete and have fun."
Sophomore Meg Henican and junior Leah Nedderman also may see time at outside hitter for Notre Dame. Henican played in 82 games a year ago, splitting time between the left side and libero, and finished fourth on the team with 2.23 digs per contest. Nedderman saw action in 13 games.
At opposite, senior Katie Neff will be a force again this fall after starting for the first time a year ago and blasting 303 kills (2.89 per game). She recorded 17 double-digit kill matches as a junior.
"Katie Neff is someone who made huge progress last year," says Brown. "Probably the thing that was most evident was her confidence level, knowing she could go in and dominate at the net. She is such a good blocker and such a good attacker. It is just a matter of her going out night to night and proving she is that type of player - one that can dominate."
Sophomores Lauren Kelbley and Lauren Brewster return at middle blocker after starting and making an immediate impact as freshmen a year ago. Kelbley, the 2002 rookie of the year in both the BIG EAST and AVCA Northeast Region, had 298 kills (2.84 per game) with a team-high .351 hitting percentage. In addition, she was second on the team with 116 blocks (1.10 per game). Her hitting average tied for the sixth-best single-season mark in school history.
"The two Laurens, as our starting middle blockers last year, did a great job," says Brown. "They actually have different abilities. Lauren Kelbley offensively is incredible and difficult to stop. As the season went on, match after match, she hit some incredible shots and was definitely a go-to hitter for us. She made tremendous strides in blocking and was probably our most improved blocker in the spring. Now her package is complete, so it is just a matter of her continuing to refine it."
Brewster set a Notre Dame record with 151 block assists in '03, while posting the most total blocks by a freshman in school history. Her 175 blocks were the fourth-most in a single season by an Irish player. Brewster led the conference in block average and gained all-BIG EAST honorable mention honors.
"Last year she progressed incredibly," says Brown of Brewster. "She is a very strong blocker and very strong attacker. She was a large part of the reason we finished as high as we did in the country in blocks per game last year. We will continue to expect that from her. I think she has also progressed quite a bit on offense, as well."
Also vying for playing time in the middle will be sophomore Carolyn Cooper, who played in 17 games as a first-year player. Cooper also could push the starters at opposite.
In addition, senior Kim Fletcher is expected to be an integral part of the Irish nucleus this season. The most versatile player on the team, she could push for floor time on either the right or left sides or in the middle. As a starting middle blocker in 2001, Fletcher totaled 252 kills (2.55 per game) and 118 blocks (1.19) on her way to earning second-team all-BIG EAST honors. A year ago, she had 52 kills and 17 blocks in 31 games.
"She can play any position and play it well," says Brown of Fletcher. "Kim does every part of the game well. In the frontcourt, she can be a strong player, left, middle, or right. That is such a good thing for a coach to have - someone who can go in and play every position. I think she is either going to be starting or really pushing someone at one of those positions."
Junior Kelly Corbett and sophomore Lindsay Peterson will be primarily defensive specialists, though Corbett could still see some time at middle blocker. She had 22 kills and a dozen blocks in 15 games a year ago, while Peterson saw limited playing time.
The libero position is the lone spot on the floor where Notre Dame was hurt by graduation. Graduated are tri-captains Keara Coughlin and Janie Alderete, who were staples in the back row specialist position that was added to the college game in 2002. Both averaged over 2.50 digs per game while seeing considerable playing time as seniors.
Corbett, Henican, and Jessica Kinder will compete for time at libero this year, along with the lone freshman on the Notre Dame squad, Danielle Herndon. Recruited by Brown to be a libero, Herndon led Durant High School to the Florida state championship last year and had a good deal of experience with the Tampa Bay Juniors club team.
"I think we have a lot of options as to who we might use there (at libero) and how to best move the lineup around with the individual players to get the best out of that position. I do think it is a critical position on the team. It is not just for steady passing, but for a spark on defense, as well."
Herndon will not be the only new face for the Irish this season. Louella Lovely, formerly an assistant at California from 1998-99 before coaching at the club level, joined Brown and Davis on the Notre Dame staff last spring. A standout setter collegiately at Air Force, California, and Cal Poly SLO, Lovely will be a mentor to Kristen Kinder and Burrell, aiding their development.
"We're all really excited about having her," says Brown. "Her primary responsibility in the gym will be working with the setters. She was a very good setter, and she understands that position very well. In the very short time she was with us in the spring, I think her coaching helped the setters a lot. She is going to help our offense, and she is also an excellent teacher of passing and defense. Plus, she brings great energy and enthusiasm, so I think she is a great addition to our staff."
Once again, Notre Dame will face a difficult schedule. The Irish will take on 10 teams earning berths to last year's NCAA Championship, including five gaining top-12 seeds. The Joyce Center will welcome NCAA qualifiers Indiana, Utah, and South Carolina for the Shamrock Invitational and will play host to the 2003 BIG EAST Championship. On the road, the Irish will take on five teams who finished in the top 12 of last year's final national rankings, highlighted by early-season tournaments at Pepperdine and Texas and a November trip to '02 NCAA runner-up Stanford.
"I think it will be challenging, and that is what we need," says Brown of the '03 Irish slate. "I think the fact that we open up with Arizona and then play Pepperdine and Eastern Washington right away is really good for us, because I think it helps to know that the first time we step on the court, we have to be playing at a high level. Certainly we want to improve, and as the year goes on, I know we will, but to have that urgency - to know the first time we step on the court we need to be playing at a high level - I think is a perfect challenge for us."