Oct. 17, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – After smashing the glass ceiling that held the squad back from picking up its first Atlantic Coast Conference win as a program last Saturday with a 3-0 sweep of Georgia Tech, the University of Notre Dame volleyball team returns home to the friendly confines of Purcell Pavilion for weekend showdowns with two ACC powerhouses as Miami comes calling at 7 p.m. Friday before No. 19 Florida State storms into the Joyce at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Hurricanes (13-4, 6-1 ACC) and the Seminoles (13-5, 6-1 ACC) are tied atop the league standings and have a combined record of 26-9, including 12-2 in league play. Miami’s lone ACC loss was to Florida State Wednesday night, 3-1, while the Seminoles dropped an unexpected 3-1 decision at Georgia Tech a couple of weeks ago.
“We know we still have so much to improve on and so many little things to take care of,” said head coach Debbie Brown. “That’s really what we worked on this week, getting in a lot of good reps in passing, serving and digging. We continued to focus on our blocking because we have struggled with that recently. It’s been a good week because we had some time to work on our side of the net in addition to preparing for Miami and Florida State without having to turn around quickly and play someone.”
Friday night’s opponent Miami was picked third in the league standings prior to the start of the season and has not disappointed thus far as it got off to a 6-0 start in league play before the Wednesday setback to FSU on the road. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Irish won the USF Tournament to start the season and then later claimed the Bay Area Challenge title. The Hurricanes also split a pair of home matches with LSU, and swept Oklahoma, who was receiving votes at the time.
A balanced front line leads the Hurricanes as junior outside hitter Savannah Leaf is fourth in the ACC in kills per set with 3.83, while junior middle blockers Alexis Mourning (.345) and Emani Sims (.330) are fourth and tied for fifth, respectively, in the ACC in attack percentage. Setting up those three talented performers is setter Blair Fuentez, who is fourth in the league with 10.54 assists per set. Meanwhile, libero Ryan Shaffer gets the offense going as she sits second in the ACC with 4.60 digs per set.
“Miami’s balance is especially impressive to me,” said Brown. “In one of their matches last weekend they had five hitters with nine or more kills. They are a poised team, especially on the attack, so that will be a challenge for us.”
The meeting between the two schools will renew a brief BIG EAST rivalry from the early 2000's that the Irish controled, 4-1. Included in the wins were BIG EAST Tournament victories over the Hurricanes in 2002 and 2003 before Miami moved on to the ACC.
No. 19 Florida State, meanwhile, has lived up to preseason expectations thus far after it was unanimously selected to win the ACC in 2013. The Seminoles opened the season by going 2-1 at three consecutive elite non-conference tournaments before sweeping three of their first seven conference opponents.
Leading the Seminoles on offense is sophomore outside hitter Nicole Welch, who sits tied for sixth in the ACC with 3.58 kills per set. Playing beside Welch is sophomore middle blocker Ashley Neff, who is first in the league in blocks per set with 1.43 and second in attack percentage with a .409 clip in 252 attempts.
“The biggest thing with Florida State is it is a very physical team that plays high above the net, said Brown. “They attack the pins very well and are a very strong net team with Ashley Neff leading the conference in blocking. I think our challenge is to match up with them at the net.”
Florida State and Notre Dame are tied at two wins apiece all-time, with the Irish going 1-2 in three consecutive road matches against the Seminoles. The last match was a thrilling 3-2 win in Talahassee for the home squad in 2009.
Last weekend the Irish shook off a seven-match losing streak and a Friday sweep at Clemson to sweep the Yellow Jackets in front of a loud crowd Saturday night at O’Keefe Gymnasium in Atlanta. The Irish got defensive against GT, totaling 11 blocks and holding the Yellow Jackets to a .160 hitting percentage. Junior Toni Alugbue turned in a strong all-around performance for the Irish as she recorded a double-double with 10 kills and 10 digs to go along with four blocks. Senior Nicole Smith had nine kills and just one error as she hit .500 to lead the team.
Smith, who is fourth on the team this season in kills per set with over two a frame (2.13), will appear in a Friday feature about how she overcame two knee injuries since her junior year in high school to contribute for the Irish as a senior.
In addition to the exciting matches on the court, fans that come to Purcell Pavilion this weekend will enjoy “Free T-Shirt Friday” for the showdown with the Hurricanes, as well as the annual Block Out Cancer match Sunday against the Seminoles. Pink t-shirts will be on sale for $10, and Brown will donate five dollars for every block the Irish record with all the day’s funds going to the Women’s Task Force and its Secret Sisters Society at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center.
For fans that can’t make it to the matches, Gametracker and a live video feed will be available for free on UND.com.
More information on Notre Dame volleyball can be found on Facebook.com/NDVolleyball and on Twitter (@NDVolleyball).
-- Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director