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VOLLEYBALL: Irish advance to sweet sixteen

Tom Dorwart | Monday, December 5, 2005

Sixth-seeded Notre Dame (30-3) advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997 with a second-round victory Friday evening over Northwestern (20-12) 30-27, 32-30, 30-28.

“We’re really excited about moving on to the next round and being in the Sweet 16,” Irish coach Debbie Brown said. “It’s been a long time for the program since we’ve been there.”

The Irish – who have dominated the Big East for more than a decade – finally got the monkey off their back and will travel to College Station, Texas for the Sweet 16 Friday.

“I’m really pleased with the way the team came out tonight,” Brown said. “We’ve struggled recently in games three, and we started off poorly in game three, but the last half of game three we played really, really well to finish it and just competed hard.

“It was a really good team win. We’re excited that we get to keep playing.”

Senior Lauren Brewster said her team can play without the pressure of being the favorite, and, now, they don’t care who their opponent is. Now, they’re playing the nation’s best.

“I think we’re going to be able to focus on our team a lot more now,” she said. “We know that the better we’re going to be, each round in the NCAA tournament, there are going to be good teams and they’re going to play well.

“I think before… [there was] more pressure on us to have to win. Now, it’s just down to the 16 best teams. We know they’re going to show up to play.”

Notre Dame will play No. 11 Wisconsin (25-6) in the College Station, Texas regional this Friday at 6 p.m.

The other matchup is No. 3 Washington (28-1) and No. 14 Purdue (25-8). The two will square off at 8 p.m.

Against the Wildcats, sophomore outside hitter Adrianna Stasiuk finished with 16 kills, including one cross-court rocket that landed within five feet of the net, and a match-high 19 points. Kelbley drilled 13 kills, while Brewster spiked 10. Senior Carolyn Cooper added nine.

Defensively, senior Meg Henican nabbed 21 digs, while Stasiuk and junior Danielle Herndon added 10 and nine, respectively. Brewster led the team with nine blocks. Cooper also had eight.

The Irish battled for a 2-0 lead against the Wildcats. The second game was neck-and-neck the entire way, with 13 ties and two lead changes.

Despite the 2-0 deficit, Northwestern knew it had a chance.

“Everyone’s fallible,” senior outside hitter Christie Gardner said. “We knew we had a good chance to win. We knew we were capable.”

When the Irish went to the locker room for the break in between games two and three, they, no doubt, had their previous two matches in the backs of their minds. In their last match before the NCAA tournament, the Irish lost to Tennessee in five games after leading 2-0. In Thursday’s NCAA first round, Notre Dame went up 2-0 on Dayton and eventually won a tight fifth game.

This time, the Irish wanted nothing to do with a fifth game. They didn’t even want a fourth.

“It’s just a mental hurdle to get over,” Brown said, referring to finishing the third game. “It was good. I liked the way the team talked in the locker room between games two and three, and I liked the way we finished.”

This time with the season on the line, the Irish knew they would get the job done.

“I went home and I thought about it and tried to figure out what went wrong yesterday,” Kelbley said. “I was resolved to get out there and make it happen. I tried to talk to my teammates and make sure everyone knew we were going to win this match today, and that there was no other option.”

For Brown and the Irish, especially the five seniors, each win brings another chance to play together.

“We love playing,” Brown said. “It’s the most exciting time of the year.”

For the seniors, who have been gearing for this moment their entire careers, the Sweet 16 is that much sweeter.

“I think we were really determined,” Brewster said. “I love championship games; I love the NCAA tournament. We’ve been trying to get to the Sweet 16 for the four years we’ve been here, so that was a motivating factor for all of us.”

Though the Irish took the third game from the Wildcats, it wasn’t easy. They went down 4-7 to start the game.

That had Brown thinking they were in for yet another momentum swing.

“I thought, ‘Down 4-7, oh no, here we go again.’ It needed to stop right there,” she said. “And the team did a great job of coming out of the timeout and again having the commitment and the resolve to get it done. The competitors came out.”