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ND Volleyball: Irish begin conference play

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Big East opens its 2006 schedule with a flurry of 14 matches this weekend between its 15 conference foes, and Notre Dame will be in the thick of it.

The Irish (6-5) have won nine out of the last 11 Big East championships and won their tenth regular season championship when they split the 2005 title with Louisville – but this year it’s anybody’s league. The team opens Saturday at Rutgers and continues its weekend Sunday at Villanova.

“I do think that not just in our conference, but across the country that there is an even playing field,” Notre Dame head coach Debbie Brown said. “Our goal has always been to win the regular season and then the conference championship. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but it’s going to be attainable.”

With the graduation of second-team All-America Lauren Brewster and All-America honorable mention Lauren Kelbley, and the influx of seven freshmen, the Irish have suffered more losses – five – in eleven games than they did all of last year.

“We’re not where we wanted to be in terms of our win and loss record but we still have high expectations for the team,” Brown said. “If we learn and continue to grow every match, there’s no reason we can’t accomplish what we want to do.”

Notre Dame compiled a 13-1 record in conference play last season – the lone loss came Nov. 5, 2005 at Pittsburgh 3-2 – to share the season title. The No. 8 Irish then went into the league championships at Louisville’s home court and defeated the No. 7 Cardinals in an electric 3-2 win for the title.

It was the Cardinals’ first season in the Big East – they previously played in Conference USA – but a quick rivalry developed between the two teams. Louisville, along with Pitt, will be key games in Notre Dame’s 14-game conference schedule, but the Irish will not treat the two any different than the rest.

“We’ll probably look at those two matches in terms of the history between the programs and how we’ve competed against each other,” Brown said of Pitt and Louisville. “Past that, we do respect the teams in the Big East and it’s a challenge for us to win the regular season and conference championship.”

No Big East teams were ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll released Monday, but Louisville was on the bubble, receiving 33 votes. The Irish earned 10 votes last week, but were not on the radar this time around.

St. John’s has been hot early in the season, earning the best non-conference record in the Big East at 14-1 – the team lost 3-0 to No. 7 Southern California Sept. 9. Cincinnati and Connecticut have also done well in the year’s first month, putting up 8-2 and 9-3 records, respectively.

Brown, however, feels that each team’s record is not an indicator of the success or failure each will have in conference play.

“It’s still too early to know exactly how [the season is] going to play out because there been such a variety in the conference teams in who they played against,” she said. “It’s going to take a couple of weeks of conference play to get a better feel of how things are going to shake out.”

Notre Dame will travel to New Jersey for its second straight weekend Sept. 30 to face Seton Hall and will host Marquette and Syracuse a week later in its conference home openers.

“It’s always good to play at home, not having the travel on the weekend is a big thing,” Brown said of playing at the Joyce. “In just being in comfortable and familiar surroundings and not having the extra burden of hours of travel.”

An Oct. 13 match against DePaul at home is the final game for the Irish before a fall break trek to Hawaii.

Notre Dame will play a two-game set against the No. 15 Warriors starting Oct. 16 in Honolulu.

“It’s not a question in my mind that playing the matches over there will be beneficial for us,” Brown said. “We’re going over there with every expectation that we’re going to win. It’s a chance to play a top-25 team and take away a couple wins. It’s a chance for us to prove ourselves again.”

The remaining eight games on the Irish schedule after the break include Pitt and Louisville, but Notre Dame and Brown refuse to look farther than Saturday.

“I think that the staff and the team – we’re trying not to look at the season as a whole thing,” Brown said.

“To be quite honest that’s a few weeks down the road, and right now we’re just thinking about Villanova and Rutgers and opening up the Big East this weekend and taking it one match at a time.”