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Irish open NCAA tournament

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, December 5, 2003

It doesn’t matter that it is arguably the toughest subregional in the country. It doesn’t matter that three of the four teams are ranked nationally.All that matters is who wins the match at hand, because the loser goes home.The No. 21 Irish are set to take on No. 19 Louisville after finishing the regular season 23-6 last weekend with a 3-0 loss to No. 5 Stanford. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are coming off a 3-2 loss at the hands of Ball State, to finish their season 24-5. Louisville is 2-11 against Notre Dame all-time, the last match a 3-0 victory for the Irish.Notre Dame makes its 12th consecutive NCAA appearance, by way of an at-large bid. Louisville, meanwhile, makes its 14th tournament appearance, as they won the Conference USA tournament to earn the conference’s automatic bid.The Irish and the Cardinals are joined in the bracket by 15th-seeded No. 18 Illinois and unranked Murray State. By obtaining one of the 16 seeds, the Illini earned the right to host the regional. Notre Dame plays first at 6 p.m. Friday night, followed by Illinois/Murray State.The winners face off Saturday for the right to travel to Honolulu, Hawaii.Notre Dame is 11-12 in NCAA tournament action, and reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1994, 1995 and 1997. In 1993, the Irish made an appearance in the quarterfinals. Last year, the Irish earned the 16th seed, hosting the first and second rounds before falling to Michigan State in round two.But this year Notre Dame has other plans.They have had a whole week to prepare for the Cardinals, and practice has focused on solely the Louisville game at hand.”Obviously at this level you have to play well,” Irish coach Debbie Brown said. “The key for us is aggressive serving; we have to serve really tough because I really think that Louisville’s weakness is in their passing, in their ball control. So I think we need to take them out of system. But along with that, our block needs to be strong and our digging behind it needs to be good, too.”In order to accomplish this, the Irish will look to senior sisters Jessica and Kristen Kinder. Jessica leads the team in aces (33), and is second in digs (3.25 per game). Kristen, a first team all-Big East selection, leads the offense, as she is one of the best at diversifying the potent offensive attack.As far as their nation-leading block ranking, the Irish look to two sophomore Laurens. Lauren Brewster leads the Irish, averaging 1.81 blocks per game, while Lauren Kelbley averages 1.24 blocks per game.Another key to the Irish’s success, libero Meg Henican, leads the Irish defense with 402 digs on the yearEmily Loomis is a large part of the balanced Irish offense, as she leads them in kills, averaging 3.58 per game. Brewster, meanwhile, averages 3.52 and Kelbley averages 3.28. All three were named to the All-Big East team. Kelbley and Brewster were named to the first team, while Loomis earned second-team honors. But that is over, and the Irish know they are in for a fight tonight against Louisville.”I think for sure that we go into the match and we know its going to be tough, we can’t look past Louisville,” Brown said. “We go in really focused, and really knowing what we need to do to win one match and the you take it from there.”Because they only have one freshman, defensive specialist Danielle Herndon, the Irish bring NCAA experience that they didn’t have last year with Kelbley and Brewster as freshmen. They are prepared to play some of the best teams early in the tournament, the first being Louisville. “I don’t mind it, I really don’t,” Brown said. “We have to play at a high level, so we might as well do it early [in the tournament].”And, despite the fact that they have lost four of their last six matches, including their last two, the Irish are confident and ready to play again. “I think that it’s an exciting time of year and you want to just look forward to everything,” Brown said. “I think we all believe that the best is yet to come and we’re excited about the way we’ve trained, and how we’ve prepared. Things are looking good, I think.”