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ND VOLLEYBALL: Irish stock soaring after tourney

Tom Dorwart | Thursday, September 15, 2005

After telling themselves all week they could hang with the cr̬me de la cr̬me of the volleyball world, the Irish (6-0) found out they could do more than just hang Рthey could win.

They became part of the nation’s cream of the crop at the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Dome Rally, whipping up such an impressive weekend, they shot up the rankings – faster than any team in the history of the poll.

Notre Dame jumped 11 spots in the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association Top 25, from No. 19 to No. 8, with weekend victories over then No. 8 Southern Cal, Oklahoma and then No. 6 Florida. After the three matches, the Irish were the sole unbeaten squad at the Rally.

“It’s amazing,” sophomore setter Ashley Tarutis said. “This weekend was the first time we’ve all played really well together, and it was really exciting to be rewarded with a No. 8 ranking after finally combining all of our skills.”

Coach Debbie Brown said she was pleased to get the recognition but acknowledged there are more important things that came from last weekend.

“I’m actually more proud of the way that we played,” she said. “I think the rankings aren’t anything that we really have control over. We do want to be a top 10 program, so I’m not going to say that doesn’t mean anything.

“It’s a good feeling to know you have the respect of the other teams. I just think that we competed, and the confidence that we gained by playing steady against really good teams is one of the best things about last weekend.”

Along with the high ranking, the Irish have another reward – a place in the Notre Dame record books.

The Irish became the second-highest ranked Notre Dame volleyball team ever behind the 1995 team which reached No. 7. The 11-spot ascension was the largest by any school in AVCA poll history. No team in the 24-year span of the poll had risen more than 10 slots previously, which Brigham Young did in 1996.

The Irish wins against the Trojans and the Gators marked the first time in program history Notre Dame defeated a pair of top-10 teams in the same weekend.

“Our coaches had been telling us all week that we could play with these teams, and we could beat these teams,” Tarutis said.

On Friday, the Irish didn’t start out well against the Trojans. They dropped the first game. Brown thought her team might have been trying too hard. After a week of preparation for what was one of the strongest regular-season tournaments in the nation, the Irish came out flat.

USC took it to them. The experienced Trojans – winners of two of the past three national titles – looked like the powerhouse they always are.

The Rally at the Alamodome, the site of this year’s volleyball Final Four, was supposed to have a Final Four atmosphere.

Instead, it was quiet. Not many fans came. And the Irish looked lethargic.

“Very, very different,” Brown said of the atmosphere. “We talked about it a little bit. It was the Alamodome, so it was a really big, huge venue, and there weren’t a lot of people.”

Then, the Irish showed why they are now a top-10 squad. When there wasn’t excitement or energy, they created it themselves.

“So any energy or momentum had to be created by us,” Brown said. “Then throughout the rest of the weekend we won nine in a row. The fact that even if we get down by 3 or 4 points, we find a way to fight back and get the points back. At the end of the game, I think we finished really strong in terms of executing and keeping composure.”

From there, Notre Dame was itself again.

Once again, Lauren Brewster won a tournament MVP.

The Big East player of the week for the second week in a row, Brewster won the Dome Rally’s MVP award, which was announced Sunday night. She won the same award in The Inn at Saint Mary’s Shamrock Invitational.

On Monday, the Irish got a well-earned break but were back to work Tuesday, preparing for a weekend trip to College Station, Texas to take on Tulane (1-0) and LSU (8-1). The two matches were originally scheduled to take place in New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl Classic, but because of Hurricane Katrina they have been moved to Tulane’s temporary home at Texas A&M.

While this weekend’s rendezvous has switched locations, the teams and the goals remain the same, though there is an added sentiment for both the Green Wave and the Tigers. Players on both teams – especially Tulane, whose campus was destroyed by the hurricane – are from New Orleans or the Gulf Coast and have family members missing and homes washed away. These teams have more than a win to play for.

LSU has played several matches since the hurricane, but Tulane has yet to see the court since Aug. 26. The Green Wave has had six matches cancelled. This weekend will serve as a catharsis of sorts for both Louisiana teams.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Irish is to avoid getting caught up in the emotions – to just play.

Before the USC match, Notre Dame took a different approach than usual. Rather than hooting and hollering, they just warmed up.

Now, when there’s no excitement, the Irish will know what to do. They’ll scream, jump up and down, lay out for digs. They are the creators, and it’s up to them to keep the momentum going.

They have cracked the top 10 for the first time since 1995, and they plan to keep climbing to stir up some more rankings.

After being told all last week they could compete with the crème de la crème, they finally are the crème.