Notre Dame Year in Review
Joe Meixell | Friday, May 15, 2009
Despite finishing fifth in the Big East regular season standings, the Irish came within two games of claiming the conference crown, falling in a close match to Louisville in the Big East championship game.
“We continued to improve as a team as the year went on,” Irish coach Debbie Brown said. “And that allowed us to have a really strong finish.”
Notre Dame’s Big East tournament run included a victory over Big East regular-season champion St. John’s, 3-1 (23-25, 25-20, 25-21, 27-25).
“I feel like we had a really strong finish and were playing really good volleyball at the end of the year,” Brown said.
The Irish started the season in four nonconference tournaments, going 5-7 in early play. One of those defeats, though, was a tight loss to then-No. 4 California. Notre Dame fell to the Golden Bears 3-2 (25-17, 21-25 20-25, 25-23, 16-14).
After the nonconference tournaments, Notre Dame got down to business in Big East play. The Irish won their first three conference matches before falling to Cincinnati on Oct. 5. Notre Dame went 6-4 the rest of the way in conference play, and dropped a 3-1 decision to Long Beach State in a nonconference match.
Once the conference tournament started, though, the Irish turned up their level of play. The Irish beat Connecticut 3-0 (25-19, 25-19, 25-22), before downing the Red Storm and ultimately falling to the Cardinals, 3-1 (25-23, 28-26, 15-25, 25-22).
Brown said the late-season success was mainly a result of her team finally getting healthy.
“We were just able to kind of tweak the lineup a little bit and get more comfortable,” she said. “We lost a couple of matches early on because we didn’t have the depth at that point.”
Junior outside hitter Christina Kaelin led the Irish on offense, averaging 3.25 kills per set, with a .258 hitting percentage. Kaelin returned to the Irish lineup in 2008 after sitting out 2007 due to injury.
“As the season went on, she just became more and more confident in what she could do,” Brown said of Kaelin.
Also making an impact for the Irish on offense was freshman outside hitter Kristen Dealy. Dealy was second on the team with 2.79 kills per set, with a .177 hitting percentage.
“I think Kristen’s greatest asset is that she’s a really strong all-around player,” Brown said. “In particular, her passing was so important for us.”
Notre Dame should be poised for improvement in 2009, losing only two seniors to graduation. Senior middle blocker Justine Stremick spent the early part of the season recovering from an ACL injury, but came on at the end to lead the team with 1.11 blocks per set.
“She was just getting in the groove of things,” Brown said. “As the season went on she got more and more comfortable so that by the end of the season she was playing the way we knew she could.”
The Irish will also lose senior outside hitter Mallorie Croal, who played in only 11 matches this season due to injury. Brown, though, said that Croal still found a way to help the Irish win.
“There’s no question that Mallorie is one of the best leaders we’ve ever had,” Brown said. “And the way that she could continue lead the team even when she wasn’t on the court was just amazing.”
Overall, Brown said the early outlook for next season was positive.
“Obviously we’re very optimistic,” she said. “I think that everything is in place for us to have a very strong season.”
The Irish had a successful 2008 campaign that ended with both teams competing in the NCAA championships.
The men and women both finished fourth at the Great Lakes Regional, good enough for at-large team bids for nationals. The men finished 19th overall at the NCAAs and the women finished 29th.
“The highlight for our team was our performance at the regional meet to qualify for the NCAA championships,” Irish women’s coach Tim Connelly said. “Our goal each year is to qualify for the NCAA Championships and run well there, so we accomplished part of what we had hoped to.”
Notre Dame hosted two meets in 2008, the Nov. 19 National Catholic Championships and the Oct. 3 Notre Dame Invitational. Junior Lindsey Ferguson and sophomore Paul Springer each finished first in the Catholic Championships while senior Patrick Smyth led the men’s team with a fifth place finish in his first race of the year in the Notre Dame Invitational.
Smyth paced the Irish men for the rest of the season, finishing second at the Big East championships and first at the Great Lakes Regional. He placed 10th at the NCAAs to earn his third cross-country All-American selection.
For the women, Ferguson made a name for herself early in the season and continued to lead the Irish at each race.
“Lindsey had a very consistent, solid season,” Connelly said. “Hopefully next year she will be able to continue to perform at a high level throughout the season and finish with a great race at the NCAA Championships.”
Ferguson finished 13th at the Big East championships to earn her second all-conference honor and led the Irish at the NCAAs with a 99th place finish.
Both teams were young in 2008; the men will lose only three runners to graduation and the women just two. Both will still have stars in 2009, including Ferguson and sophomore Marisa Treece for the women and all-Big East junior Jake Walker and freshman Joe Miller on the men’s side.
“With the bulk of our team back next year, some of our younger runners continuing to develop and the addition of several freshmen contributors, we would expect to be back at the NCAA and improve on this year’s performance next fall,” Connelly said.
It took a dramatic last-second finish, but the Irish walked away the 2009 season with their second consecutive Big East title.
The 400-yard freestyle relay team of juniors John Lytle and Andrew Hoffman, senior Danny Lutkus and sophomore Joshua Nosal defeated top-seeded Louisville to clinch the crown for Notre Dame.
“We managed to fight back and win in the most dramatic fashion,” senior breaststroker Daniel Rave said. “I think Louisville was not expecting us to swim as well as we did, and they were expecting a rather easy win.”
After being predicted to finish almost seven seconds behind the Cardinals and suffering a regular season loss a few weeks before, the Irish were able to pull off the upset.
During the regular season, the Irish went 4-5, earning crucial victories over Pittsburgh, Miami (Ohio), and Cleveland State.
“The last four years showed me that teamwork exists, and even though I am alone during my race, I am supported by a team,” Rave said. “Whether it is through racing someone during practice or by seeing others having great races during meets, your teammates influence you.”
The Irish will return several key swimmers from this year’s squad, and should be in good position to compete for the third consecutive conference championship. Last season’s most valuable players MacKenzie LeBlanc and John Lytle will be back, and hope to lead Notre Dame to another champioinship.
“It’s a long season and there are a lot of ups and downs,” senior diver Michael Bulfin said. “In the end we needed to make sure that we had put ourselves in the right position to win the Big East and have a good shot at sending people to the National Championships.”
After a season with big wins and upsetting losses both, the Irish men’s swimming and diving team walked away conference champions and with high hopes for next season.
Notre Dame capped off its record-extending 13th consecutive Big East title this season with NCAA championship berths from three athletes.
Though sophomore swimmers Amywren Miller and Samantha Maxwell and junior diver Natalie Stitt boasted tremendous individual efforts, first-year Irish coach Brian Barnes said it was the teamwork that was emphasized from the start that had the biggest impact on his team.
“It wasn’t easy coming into this team in August with no familiarity with the program, but the team really embraced me,” Barnes said. “I am so lucky that I have a motivated group who believes in what I believe in, and we are going to continue to learn and grow.”
A clean sweep of the Dennis Stark Relays’ 12 events at the Rolfs Aquatic Center gave the team its first win the season. The Irish won each of the 10 races and both diving competitions to post a record-setting 280 points.
“I knew we had several potential All-Americans swimming in the pool over at Rolfs,” Barnes said. “While the long-term goal is setting times that will be competitive at the national championships, we are always competing to win.”
After posting a 3-3 record in dual meets and finishing third in the Ohio State Invitational in early December, Notre Dame posted a Big East meet performance in mid-February that can only be described as dominant.
The Irish set 11 school records and beat runner-up Louisville – which had edged Notre Dame in dual meet competition in January – by nearly 150 points, all while extending the longest championship winning streak in Big East competition for any sport.
Maxwell set school and Big East records in the 200-yard breaststroke. Miller’s 22.37-second time in the 50 free made her the fastest female Notre Dame swimmer ever. Junior Megan Farrell set the school’s 200 IM mark. Sophomore Katie Casey made her own mark in the 200 butterfly record books and Stitt won both diving events.
“All season we have talked about swimming well and being confident and working like a team,” Barnes said. “It takes more than one or two stars to win a title, and at the Big East championships we performed like a team and won like a team.”
The Notre Dame women’s rowing team was a force to be reckoned with in the Big East again this year.
The biggest meet of the year up to this point, the Big East championship, was a success for Notre Dame. The Irish placed first out of eight teams overall, and placed either first or second in all races that weekend. They finished with 112 points, which was far above second-place Syracuse at 97 points.
The Irish also fared well in several big regattas, including the San Diego Crew Classic, where the second varsity eight finished fifth overall in the JV Grand Final. In a three-team competition between in-state rivals Indiana and Purdue earlier in the year, Notre Dame was able to capture victories in four out of the five races.
The Irish have found success this season, and head coach Martin Stone has had a simple formula all year: “To go faster than the year before and be fast enough to win the Big East.”
The team is repeatedly working on conditioning and strength, always searching for that physical edge on the competitor. The next step is to be fast enough to compete in the NCAA Championships, which is the ultimate goal for the crew.
As is the case for any successful team, the Irish have had excellent leadership, especially from the seniors. “I think all the seniors have shown themselves to be leaders at one point or another,” Stone said. “They are all very passionate about the sport and work to see the program succeed.”
Some of these seniors were recognized for their performance both on the water and in the classroom. Erica Copeland, a member of the second varsity eight crew, was given The Top Gun Award as well as the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley Rockne Student-Athlete Award. Sophomore Emily Crosby and junior Braegan Padley were named to the Rosenthal Leadership Academy.
The Irish are still in-season, with the South/Central Sprints in Oakride, Tenn. coming up on graduation weekend and possibly the NCAA Championships in Cherry Hill, N.J. to follow.
As Notre Dame looks back on a season marked by both success and failure from its young team, it welcomes with open arms senior Josh Sandman, who will return to the team for a fifth year after missing the 2008-2009 season due to injury. Sandman is the team’s only senior and holds the program record for scoring average.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to watch him in so many stages of development,” Irish coach Jim Kubinski said. “He’s my first player to have gone through a full four years, as I arrived in the spring of 2005. It’s been such a thrill for me to watch him grow, not only becoming a top player and leader on our team but also how he has grown as a student and as a person.”
Sandman, who missed the fall and spring seasons due to back surgery, watched as a young Irish squad endured a tumultuous season. Junior Doug Fortner, the only upperclassman who started consistently, was the rock for a team experiencing growing pains with his team-leading 74.24 stroke average. Freshman Max Scodro emerged as a solid collegiate golfer, picking up medalist honors at the UNCG Bridgestone Intercollegiate and four top-10 finishes. Both Scodro and Fortner earned All-Big East honors for their efforts.
Notre Dame shared defeat along with its successes. Youth and inexperience hurt the Irish this season, but the veteran presences of Sandman and Fortner allowed the younger golfers to mature quickly.
“[Sandman] has meant exponentially more to our program than his scores,” Kubinski said. “I’m not even sure how to measure his contributions. He has not only related to each and every one of our younger players but has been able to contribute to their growth. He has never given any attitude toward younger players, as if to say, ‘I’m important,’ or ‘I’m older.’ Quite the contrary.”
With Scodro, Fortner and Sandman returning alongside a very strong sophomore class highlighted by Jeff Chen, the future is bright for Notre Dame.
Coming into this season, the Irish women’s golf team had a tough act to follow from their 2007-2008 campaign. The defending Big East Tournament champions took to the links in September to try and replicate their success with some new faces on the roster, and Irish coach Susan Holt was happy with the way the team came together in the fall.
“In the fall, we got acclimated to a new team,” Holt said. “Everyone was getting used to the new line up.”
It wasn’t long before Notre Dame experienced some success with the new team. On Sept. 29 at the University of Colorado Tournament, the Irish set a program record for scoring on their way to winning the tournament.
“The win in Colorado was huge for us,” Holt said. “[The tournament win] was significant for the team because it gave them confidence.”
The spring season brought a new challenge for the Irish. Before the season started, Holt set some lofty goals for the team, including finishing nationally-ranked in the top 15 and winning the Big East Tournament again. The Irish came up short on both of those goals, but still came away with a successful regular season.
“We played tougher competition on some difficult courses,” Holt said. “Plus it rained in just about every tournament, but I still feel good about where we’re at right now.”
On April 21, the Irish finished second at the Big East Tournament and qualified for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame competed at the NCAA Central Regional at Ohio State this past weekend, ending its season with a 16th place finish.
Leading the Irish this season was senior captain Lisa Maunu. Maunu was one of four Irish golfers named to the All-Big East team after the Big East Tournament, and finished first individually in the conference tournament.
Junior Annie Brophy, sophomore So-Hyun Park and freshman Becca Huffer were also named to the All-Big East team for the Irish. In addition to taking home All-Big East honors, Huffer was voted as the Big East Freshman of the Year.
With the success of the last few seasons, the Irish women’s golf program appears to be on the upswing.
“We’ve got a lot of talent right now and some good players coming in the new few years,” Holt said. “I think it’s a sign of things to come.”
The Irish will be returning four of the five major contributors on next year’s team, led by Huffer and 2008 All-American So-Hyun Park.
When the athletes of the men’s track and field team look back at the 2009 season, they will most likely remember their comeback victory over Louisville to win the Big East Championship.
The Irish repeated as the Big East Champions at the outdoor championships in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 3 when they squeaked past Louisville by just half a point.
Irish coach Joseph Piane thinks that the 2009 season will be well-remembered by the team.
“Winning the Big East [Championship] was special,” Piane said. “Coming from behind to win on the last event, that was something even more special.”
The Irish met Piane’s pre-Big East Championship challenge of scoring in every event on their way to claiming the championship.
After finishing second at the indoor Big East Championships in New York City on Feb. 22, the Irish started a tough outdoor schedule that often put them against some of the nation’s top competition. Throughout the season, Notre Dame butted heads against ranked opponents like Arizona State, Stanford and top-ranked Texas A&M.
The Irish currently have qualified 20 athletes on both the men’s and women’s teams to send to the NCAA Regional. Of those 20 athletes, Piane was especially proud of the efforts of senior hammer thrower Jeff Mensch. Mensch won the individual title for hammer throw at the Big East Championship improving on his personal best by five meters in the process.
“[Mensch’s improved] astronomically.” Piane said. “To improve by about 16 feet like that is really a special effort.”
Fellow senior Daniel Clark claimed All-Big Ea’st Honors with a third place finish in the 1500-meter. Senior Patrick Smyth added another impressive finish in the 5000-meter to finish third and take home All-Big East Honors.
The Irish will return the majority of their team for next year in the hopes of a third straight Big East Championship.
“We’re graduating 31.5 points out of the 130.5 we scored [in the Big East Championship],” Piane commented. “That means we have quite a few points coming back next year which is good.”
The Irish will have one more event beginning today, the Georgia Tech Invitational, before the NCAA Regionals in Louisville, Ky. on May 29.
The Irish women’s track and field team capped off a successful year with a fourth place finish at the Big East Championship in early May. The 2009 season was highlighted by the efforts of seniors Mary Saxer and Joanna Schultz.
Schultz was ranked in the top 10 nationally in the women’s 400-meter, an event she won at the Big East Championships. In addition to taking the top spot in the 400-meter, Schultz also placed sixth in the 400-meter hurdles on her way to earning first team all-conference honors.
Saxer won the pole vault at the Big East Championship on her way to All-Big East honors for the fifth time in her career. Irish track coach Joseph Piane praised Saxer’s performance while at Notre Dame.
“This year she was ranked No. 1 in her event,” Piane said. “But now I think she’s down to second.”
Saxer set the Notre Dame women’s pole vault mark last season with a vault of 4.06 meters. She is also one of the Notre Dame’s three indoor All-Americans with a good chance of being named an outdoor All-American with a strong showing at the NCAA Regional on May 29.
The Irish have already had 20 members of the men’s and women’s track and field teams qualify for the NCAA Regional. They still have one more chance to add more qualifiers to that list today at the Georgia Tech Invitational.
All year Notre Dame has been competing against some of the toughest talent in the country. The Irish traveled to events in Tempe, Ariz. and Palo Alto, Calif. to take on some of the nation’s elite. Piane said the team should be even more competitive next year.
“[The team] is pretty young,” Piane said. “We’re bringing back a lot of talent to improve.”
Some of the young talent includes sophomores Kelly Langhans in the 800-meter, Marissa Treece in the 1500-meter and Kali Watkins in the 100-meter hurdles, all of whom finished in the top 10 in their events at the Big East Championship.