NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As has been the norm throughout the University of Notre Dame volleyball program's 35-year history, a brutal schedule awaits the Irish as they venture into their second season in the highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
After a tough first season where they finished 13-18, including 7-13 in the league, the Irish will meet six AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) top-25 opponents throughout the year, including opening the year against No. 12 Minnesota and No. 6 Wisconsin.
Head coach Debbie Brown and her veteran coaching staff is more than up for the challenge and they bring back nine monogram winners and welcome in six freshmen that are anxious to get Notre Dame back to its winning ways.
A program that has been a model of consistency throughout Brown's career showed flashes of impressive play littered among several disappointing outings last year. Highlights of the year included a home victory over Miami in October and a 7-8 finish to conference play after beginning their ACC journey with a 0-5 record. The Irish also took 2013 NCAA quarterfinalist Purdue to five sets in early September to give the program confidence that they can compete against the best as they headed into spring practice and fall preseason work.
A learning experience to be sure, Brown thinks the tough rookie year in the ACC will pay dividends in year two.
"The main thing we learned last year is that the competition in the ACC is strong from top to bottom," says Brown. "I think we knew that going in, but to actually experience that is another thing. It's a really good conference with quality programs. That's makes the league competitive and fun every night as any team can beat any other team. The level of competition makes it a really fun league to play in."
The Irish lost some talented seniors last year in setter Maggie Brindock, libero Andrea McHugh and right side hitter Sammie Brown among others, but brings back two-time honorable mention All-American Jeni Houser as part of a big six-member senior class that will help tutor a six-member freshmen class that is ready to get to work.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Irish along with information on the coaching staff and schedule:
LIBEROS / DEFENSIVE SPECIALISTS
Despite losing McHugh, the Irish boast a deep libero pool as seniors Kathleen Severyn and Erin Klosterman will join forces with freshmen Natalie Johnson and Jo Kremer to give Brown several options at the position.
"I see the foursome pushing each other in practice every day," says Brown. "They know what the position requires and the premium we place on service receive, good ball control and first contact. I think we've had a really good start in that we've gotten the touches we need to develop the skill to be as consistent as possible. It's fun because it's competitive in the gym every day. They are pushing each other and the freshmen are holding their own. One of the four of them will be our libero and the other three can certainly help the team by being defensive specialists and servers for us. Kathleen and Erin have been great mentors to Jo and Natalie in terms of coming to practice early and getting extra reps and just showing the way it's done. They are both vocal players too so they are showing how to be leaders as far as directing, encouraging and keeping the energy level high in the gym."
Severyn and Klosterman have combined to appear in 117 matches for the Irish, while Johnson and Kremer bring impressive high school pedigrees to Notre Dame. Kremer, an outstanding sand player, was named an AVCA first team Sand Volleyball All-American in the spring.
Setter might be the position on the 2014 Irish squad that had the most uncertainty entering the preseason as the program looked to replace Brindock, who was a 2012 second team all-BIG EAST selection and a three-year starter who left with the fifth-most assists in program history (3,207). However, Brown has been pleased with junior Hanna Muzzonigro and freshman Maddie Dilfer and the effort they have displayed in fall preparations.
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Muzzonigro received some quality experience as a sophomore as she saw action in 21 matches, including tallying a double-double at Boston College (11 assists, 11 digs) in a come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Eagles.
Dilfer, meanwhile, brings a winning mentality to the program in part from her dad, Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, and partly from a successful high school career where she led the USA Volleyball Youth National Team to a bronze medal at the High Performance Championships and earned Under Armour honorable mention All-America honors twice.
"I love that both ladies are strong six-rotation players," says Brown. "If we run a 5-1, they aren't blocking liabilities. If we run a 6-2 or some modification, their setting style and tempo is not much different so I think there is a lot to draw on there. We are excited to see how we can use both of them throughout the season."
RIGHT SIDE HITTERS / OUTSIDE HITTERS
The outside spots for Notre Dame should bring a lot of interesting options as upwards of eight players can play one of the two positions. The top three point scorers are back as Houser (90 matches), Toni Alugbue (87 matches) and Nicole Smith (52 matches) boast over 225 matches of experience. Houser, who can play the middle as well as the right side, is a preseason all-ACC selection after back-to-back honorable mention All-America campaigns. Last year, she became the 21st player in program history to go over 1,000 kills for a career. Alugbue was a 2012 honorable mention All-American and Smith had a strong bounce-back year in 2013 (247 kills) after missing 2011 with an ACL injury and seeing limited action in 2012 while continuing the rehabilitation process.
Other options at the two positions include senior outside hitter Meg Vonderhaar (55 career matches), sophomore middle blocker and right side hitter Katie Higgins and freshmen outside hitters Sydney Kuhn and Maddie Plumlee.
Plumlee, a second team Under Armour All-American as a senior, and Kuhn, a standout volleyball and basketball player from Kansas, bring youth to an otherwise veteran position.
"We have a lot of different ways we can go with the two outside positions," says Brown. "Outside and right side is pretty interchangeable. We have Jeni (Houser) who played right side her first two years, but played in the middle last year, so she could play either. Maddie Plumlee played a couple of rotations as a right side and one left so she is comfortable with both and Sydney (Kuhn) is also comfortable with both. Toni (Alugbue) and Nicole (Smith) are outsides that are both very good at hitting behind the setter and are also good blockers. So we have a lot of interchangeable parts that could be on the right side this year. It could be a combination of people playing left and right or middle and right."
After playing two years on the right side, Houser made the move to the middle as a junior to fill a team need and turned in her second-consecutive honorable mention All-America season. If the Louisville, Ky., native moves back to the right side, a mostly inexperienced threesome will have their chance to shine.
Sophomores Simmone Collins (22 matches) and Katie Higgins (five matches) both gained experience last year and the program also welcomes in freshman Sam Fry to the mix. Fry, an honorable mention Under Armour All-American as a high school senior, comes from impressive Notre Dame pedigree, as her mom, Shari Matvey, was the first 1,000-point scorer in Irish women's basketball history in addition to being a CoSIDA Academic All-American.
"Depending on what we do with Jeni, she obviously brings a lot of experience there (in the middle)," says Brown. "Besides her, we are looking at three players that are relatively inexperienced, but we really like what we see in all of them in the scrimmages and drills. I think they are becoming much more comfortable in our blocking schemes and systems and they are doing a good job of making themselves available to hit. We have a good balance. The competition in the gym right now is really high, which makes for some really fun practices."
One of the nation's most experienced coaching staffs will mentor the Irish in 2014 as 32-year coaching veteran Debbie Brown will be joined by associate head coach Robin Davis (15 years), assistant coach Craig Bere (18 years) and volunteer assistant coach Denise Van De Walle (34 years). The foursome boasts almost 100 years of college volleyball coaching experience at the Division I level.
"It's really going to help us compete at a higher level because of the many years of experience among the coaches," says Brown. "None of us are coaches that think they know it all. We can continually learn from each other and challenge each other. At the same time, we have many experiences that we can draw from. I love the way we work together and how we respect each other's opinion."
Brown, who is entering her 24th campaign under the Golden Dome, is coaching with Davis for the 11th year and with Van De Walle for the third season. Bere is with the Irish for the first time, but brings plenty of ACC experience as he spent five years with Georgia Tech, helping the Yellow Jackets to their first NCAA Tournament since 2004 during his first season in 2009.
"It's huge that he has been in the league for five years," says Brown. "He really knows the different programs in the conference. He was in charge of scouting so he knows what each team likes to do and also has an idea of head coach tendencies. Besides that, he is a really talented teacher and setting coach and relates well with the student-athletes. Craig has value in so many ways."
Matchups with 12 NCAA Tournament teams, including national runner-up Wisconsin, highlight an elite 2014 schedule.
Before the Irish get into Atlantic Coast Conference action in late September, they will first play 11 non-conference matches that feature five NCAA Tournament teams and three Big Ten foes.
"Our four weeks of non-conference action will see us play strong competition that will certainly prepare us well for the ACC schedule," says Brown.
The Irish (13-18, 7-13 ACC in 2013) certainly will not ease into the season as they head to Minneapolis, Minn., for the ACC / Big Ten Challenge where they will meet the Badgers (Aug. 30) in addition to host and reigning NCAA Sweet 16 team Minnesota (Aug. 29).
"This is the first year of a four-year ACC / Big Ten Challenge with Louisville and us representing the ACC and Wisconsin and Minnesota representing the Big Ten," says Brown. "Minnesota is hosting the inaugural event and it will be a great tournament for us for the next four years."
Notre Dame will kick off the home portion of its schedule the following week (Sept. 5-7) as Washington State, NCAA Tournament qualifier IUPUI and Western Michigan come to Purcell Pavilion for the Golden Dome Invitational.
The next week (Sept 12-13), TCU, Northeastern and Northern Iowa come to town for the Shamrock Invitational.
"Our two home tournaments feature great competition," says Brown. "It will be a positive to be able to play back-to-back weekends at home early in the season."
A trip to NCAA Elite Eight program Purdue and the Purdue Active Ankle Challenge (Sept. 19-20) closes out the tournament slate for the Irish. Notre Dame will play NCAA Tournament team Morehead State and Saint Louis before closing out the tourney against the host Boilermakers.
"Purdue is always an exciting place to play," says Brown. "They're a great program and it will be a loud and rowdy atmosphere."
Year two in the Atlantic Coast Conference will present plenty of opportunities to compete against elite competition.
Notre Dame opens the conference slate at NCAA Tournament team Miami (Sept. 26) and NCAA Sweet 16 foe Florida State (Sept. 28).
The Irish will then return to Purcell Pavilion for the ACC home opener against former BIG EAST rival Syracuse (Oct. 3) before welcoming in NCAA Second Round qualifier Duke (Oct. 5) two days later.
Other NCAA Tournament opponents include Louisville (Oct. 12, Nov. 9) and North Carolina (Nov. 21).
Irish road ACC contests after Florida State include Pittsburgh (Oct. 10), Louisville (Oct. 12), Virginia Tech (Oct. 24), Virginia (Oct. 26), Boston College (Nov. 2), Wake Forest (Nov. 14) and Duke (Nov. 16).
Home matches after Duke includes Clemson (Oct. 17), Boston College (Oct. 19), Georgia Tech (Oct. 31), Louisville (Nov. 9), North Carolina (Nov. 21), NC State (Nov. 23) and Pittsburgh (Nov. 28 - Senior Day).
"We're really looking forward to our second season in the ACC," says Brown. "There was a lot to learn in year one and we know we are better prepared for this second year. The format is a little different as we have two less matches in conference and we don't have any mid-week matches. This will allow for a much better training regimen and will allow us to have better preparation too."
--Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director