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Volleyball:Big East run highlights season that featured ups and downs

Sam Werner | Thursday, December 4, 2008

For Notre Dame coach Debbie Brown, the 2008 season has just been a series of ups and downs.

“It was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride,” she said. “Certainly we had some high points, but we also had some low points too. We’d have like to have been more consistent than it was.”

Brown said the highest point of the Irish season was the team’s Big East tournament run, when it beat Connecticut and top-seeded St. John’s before falling to Louisville in the final by a score of 3-1 (25-23, 28-26, 15-25, 25-22).

“We finished strong, and that’s definitely an important thing,” Brown said. “Even though we came only a couple of points shy of winning the Big East tournament, we certainly made strides in getting there. I felt that in our last couple of matches, we just played a much higher level of volleyball.”

The rollercoaster ride started early for Notre Dame, who participated in four early season tournaments in Notre Dame, Minneapolis and Moscow, Idaho. The Irish went 5-7 in these matches, with one of their losses being a five-set thriller to then-No. 4 California.

The Irish proceeded to go 9-5 in the Big East, good enough for fifth place in the conference, but fifth-set struggles continued to haunt Notre Dame all year. The squad finished 2-5 in matches that went the distance, and just 3-7 in four-set matches. In tilts that went the minimum three sets, though, the Irish were 12-2.

“I think that was probably a coincidence,” Brown said of her team’s struggles in the fifth set. “I don’t think it was the fact that it was a five-game match. Certainly I don’t think it was conditioning or fatigue.”

Brown did say, though, that senior Mallorie Croal would have helped the Irish in those long matches. Croal went down with an ankle injury in the spring of her sophomore year, and was hampered the past two years. The senior outside hitter played her last match in Notre Dame’s Oct. 21 loss to Long Beach State this season.

“[Croal] would have made a huge difference,” Brown said. “She’s somebody that has big game experience, she’s very poised, and she makes players around her better. In close games she’s somebody that wants the ball.”

Even without Croal, Brown said she saw several bright spots on this year’s team, specifically freshman outside hitter Kristen Dealy, sophomore libero Megan Dunne, and junior outside hitter Christina Kaelin.

Dealy played in 116 out of 117 sets this year and led the team in aces with 30. Brown praised Dealy’s all-around play, specifically her passing game.

“We were hoping that she’d be able to come in and do that,” Brown said. “But the fact that she did, and just the load that she carried, especially the passing load, was big for us.”

Dunne led the team in digs per set with 2.81, despite playing in only 84 sets on the season.

“She’s tough,” Brown said. “And that’s the reason she was in there as the libero for us at the end of the year.”

Kaelin paced the team with 367 kills on the season and a .258 hitting percentage. Kaelin was coming back after missing the entire 2007 season due to injury. Her freshman year, Kaelin posted 318 kills but only a .188 hitting percentage.

“I think Christina Kaelin came back from her surgery and was very good,” Brown said. “Certainly [she was] a much better player statistically than she was her freshman year.”

Brown said that she was currently meeting with each player individually to go over this season, but that the team would soon turn it’s focus to 2009.

“We’re evaluating the season,” she said. “It’s not like we haven’t looked to next season at all, but I think while it’s still fresh in our minds we’re going over what we did this year.”

With only Croal and senior Justine Stremick graduating, the future certainly looks bright.