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Seniors look to lead Irish to unseen heights

Tom Dorwart | Thursday, November 17, 2005

It’s not often a team is laden with five gifted, unselfish seniors. It’s not often a team wins 15 consecutive matches or boasts a 22-2 record.

Most seasons, teams would be happy just to reach 18 wins on the season. Most seasons, teams would be happy winning their conference and making the NCAAs.

For the No. 8 Irish volleyball team, this season is different.

Coach Debbie Brown describes her quintet of four-year vets as – simply put – hard workers and team players.

“I think they all bring different strengths, and because of that, it helps keep the team really balanced,” she said. “They’re all leaders in their own way. It’s a group that has a strong work-ethic.”

For the high-flying Irish, who expect to win every time they step on the court, this season is about winning the Big East for the 10th time in 11 years. But that is just one major step on their ladder of lofty goals. But, the ultimate goal is so lofty, it’s not talked about. It’s in the backs of their minds. It can’t be talked about, perhaps because it would break their stellar focus.

That ultimate goal, though, is obvious. It’s as transparent as the holes in the nets on which they play. How so?

Each time they’ve lost – twice – the Irish say they’re disappointed, similar to what any team would say.

They say they need to respect every opponent they play – typical. Yet, when talking to them, an observer could get the feeling they’re more than disappointed.

Each time they win, except for maybe a few of the upset victories over top-ranked foes, the Irish and their coach say they aren’t near satisfied with their performance. Every time they win, despite their win, the observer could get the feeling they’re anxious.

These Irish are hungry. After a sweep of a feisty Valparaiso team in the middle of the season, the Irish walked off the court displeased, and there was a sense they wanted to keep playing.

They wanted to suit up right then and there and take on their next opponent – beat up their next victim – because they hadn’t played well for a stretch in the third game or because they should have won a few more points early on in a slow first game.

“We’re not really pleased with how we played,” Brown said after that match. “We were just inconsistent. So, we had some bad spurts in both games one and three.”

This season is about more than making the NCAA tournament and hosting a regional, something the Irish have done quite regularly in the past. It’s about getting the monkey off their back – about getting to that elusive final eight of the Big Dance.

The past 13 seasons, Notre Dame has made the NCAA tournament. Four of those seasons, it made it to the round of 16. Only one of those seasons, it made it to the final eight. And that was all the way back in 1997.

With such a solid core group – including pre-season Big East player of the year Lauren Brewster, pre-season All-Big East pick Lauren Kelbley, Big East No. 4 in blocks Carolyn Cooper, Big East No. 4 in digs and undoubtedly the leader Meg Henican and, finally, the epitome of the phrase “team player” Kelly Burrell – the Irish realize they can create something special this season.

Throughout the season, they’ve told the media of their great team chemistry and confidence in each other.

When asked about what legacy these five seniors can leave, Brown paused. She was most likely caught off-guard by the premature question.

“We haven’t really talked about what this group of seniors is going to leave, because I think we’re still in the process of accomplishing that,” she said.

“We’ve talked as a team about where we are and the things that we still want to accomplish.”

What exactly do the Irish want to accomplish, then?

None will say specifically. An observer, though, could easily get the idea that anything short of the Final Four would be a disappointment. Maybe, just maybe – because of their sincere disappointment after every loss and even after some wins – anything less than a national championship would be a disappointment.

The last time the Irish lost, they went on a 15-match tear. Counting the last two regular season matches, the Big East tournament and the entire NCAA tournament, there aren’t even 15 possible matches left.

Notre Dame lost just last Sunday. Teams like No. 1 Nebraska or No. 2 Washington don’t know what it’s like to lose. The Irish do. And they don’t like it. In fact, they can’t stand it so much that they never want it to happen again.

So, what describes this group of seniors, one more time, coach?

“It’s a group that’s competitive and committed to making this year the best in the history of Notre Dame volleyball,” Brown said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer. Contact Tom Dorwart at tdorwart@nd.edu