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Irish prepare for NCAA tourney

Joe Meixell | Friday, December 1, 2006

Notre Dame kicks off NCAA Tournament play with a match at No. 10 Wisconsin tonight at 8 p.m. Facing such a highly ranked team in the first round of the tournament will challenge Notre Dame, but the Irish are ready to go up against Wisconsin.

Notre Dame, now in its 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, is one of only eight teams to be so prolific in the post-season.

Irish head coach Debbie Brown knows her team will have to bring its best against the Badgers.

“They’re a strong team, no question,” she said. “They have good net play and blocking. I think they’re one of the top five blocking teams in the country right now.”

There’s more to Wisconsin than defense, however. Brown said she is equally concerned about how the Irish defense will fare against a high-powered Badgers attack.

“They have a well balanced offense as well,” Brown said.

The Badgers (23-7) are led offensively by freshman outside hitter Brittney Dolgner, who has been able to rack up 4.14 kills per game. Other key players on the Wisconsin squad include fellow All Big-Ten players Taylor Reineke, with 1.62 blocks per game, and Jackie Simpson, with 12.86 assists per game.

The Irish offense is led by freshman outside hitter Christina Kaelin’s 3.56 kills per game, and is balanced by 3.08 kills per game from junior Adrianna Stasiuk and another 2.99 kills per game from sophomore Mallorie Croal.

While Wisconsin ranks just third in the Big Ten, its national ranking shows that the Big Ten is a very strong conference and has prepared and toughened the team for the postseason. The level of play that Wisconsin displays is much higher than that of the Big East opponents Notre Dame has played during the regular season.

“[Wisconsin] is probably most similar to Louisville, in that they’re big at the net, they have very tall players. They’re better than Louisville,” Brown said. “Better defensively, but that’s the team that’s most similar to what we’re going to see.”

Wisconsin will be looking for a chance to put Notre Dame’s season to an end this year, but the Irish are entering the tournament with a strong desire to overcome the nationally ranked obstacle in their way.

“It’s a challenge, but not one that’s too big for us to handle,” Brown said. “It’s definitely something we can handle. We’re at the point where we have nothing to lose, and we’re going in with the mindset that we can achieve an upset.”

Going up against teams favored to win is not something new for the Irish, especially in recent play. Notre Dame has been seen as the underdog in its last four matches.

But an underdog mentality will only take the Irish so far. For Brown, the crucial element will be the players working together as a team.

“There’s really not one thing that will make the difference,” she said. “We need to have a total team effort.”