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ND Volleyball: Staying alive in the Top 25

Kyle Cassily | Friday, September 8, 2006

No. 23 Notre Dame travels to Cedar Falls, Iowa, this weekend to participate in the University of Northern Iowa Invitational – the second of three invitational tournaments the Irish will play in this year and their first road matches of the season.

Notre Dame’s weekend schedule includes matches against Alabama, Kansas State and Northern Iowa. Kansas State fell out of the No. 25 spot in the Sept. 4 American Volleyball Coaches Association poll -the same poll in which the Irish fell two spots – and is now the unranked team receiving the most votes.

“Two of the three teams are NCAA teams, so they have good experience,” Notre Dame head coach Debbie Brown said. “Northern Iowa, even though they didn’t make the tournament, is usually a tournament team, so I think that all three matches are going to all be equally important.

All three teams are going to be strong candidates to be NCAA teams at the end of the season.”

The Irish (3-2) are coming off a .500 record last weekend and a second-place finish in the Shamrock Invitational at the Joyce Center.

The team defeated both un-ranked Valparaiso Friday and Idaho Saturday morning by 3-1 margins, but lost 3-2 to No. 13 Missouri in its final Invitational match Saturday afternoon.

The Irish were then shutout 3-0 by No. 6 Santa Clara Sunday in a regular-season match.

Brown said that the biggest improvement she saw during the Invitational was the team’s offensive capability – which increased each match when faced with tougher opponents.

The development of her hitter’s shots were also a positive to Brown – the variety that the team achieved with its shot placement is something she would like to see continue and improve this weekend.

“We’re getting better all the time,” she said. “We’re getting better physically, understanding the flow of the game better, understanding each other on the court better.”

Freshman Christina Kaelin was an integral part of the offensive unit and was rewarded for her work with Big East rookie of the week honors Monday.

She is the third Irish player to ever win the award twice in a season, along with Mary Leffers, Lauren Kelbley and current junior Adrianna Stasiuk.

Kaelin leads the Irish in kills this season with 84 – 4.42 kills per game – and had 60 in last weekend’s four matches.

The freshman hitter blasted a season team high 24 kills in her collegiate premiere against Bowling Green and again against Missouri. She collected 21 in action against Valparaiso and 12 against Idaho. The young team flexed its offensive muscle in its first five games, but Brown would like to see more attention paid to the other side of the ball in the Northern Iowa Invitational.

“The one area we feel we can improve in the most is defensively,” she said. “Our individual body position and our position on the floor needed refinement.”

Alabama (4-2) enters the tournament after being blanked by Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the finals of the Hampton Inn Bama Bash.

The Crimson Tide is led by junior middle blocker Crystal Hudson who has collected 86 kills in 21 games.

Sophomores Amy Pauly and Sarah Snider provide the backbone on defense with 68 and 52 digs, respectively.

Kansas State (6-1) rides a five-match win streak into the Invitational, including a four-match sweep of the Varney’s Kansas State Invitational.

The Wildcats have dropped only one game during the win streak and have lost only five games on the season.

Northern Iowa (5-3) is nearly flawless at home. Since it opened in 1990, the Panthers are 177-10 (.947) at West Gym and hold the NCAA’s second-longest home win streak – 74 straight wins -from 1997-2004.

The Panthers are the only team in the Invitational to not have qualified for the 2005 NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame lost to Wisconsin 3-2 in the round of 16, while Alabama fell 3-1 in the first round to No. 20 Ohio. Kansas State was swept 3-0 by Florida in the second round.

“It’s going to be tough again,” Brown said of the Invitational. “I think it’s very similar to this past weekend. We don’t have two ranked teams, but the other teams are all as strong if not stronger than Idaho and Valparaiso.” were.”