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ND Volleyball: Irish take on Cincinnati, Louisville at home

Chris Masoud | Friday, October 9, 2009

Normally the fourth conference game of the year in the beginning of October is not a date Irish fans mark on their calendars. But with sole ownership of first place in the Big East and an undefeated conference record on the line, Saturday’s matchup against Cincinnati should turn some heads in the direction of the Joyce Center.

Notre Dame (9-4, 3-0 Big East) will face its toughest test of the season when it welcomes conference foes Cincinnati (12-7, 3-0) and Louisville (9-7, 2-1) for a weekend of elite action. The Irish are off to their best start since 2005 when the team recorded 12 wins through the first 13 matches of the season.

“It’s been a combination of several things,” coach Debbie Brown said. “I think we have a really strong work ethic on the team, which over time the team is just going to get better and better. I think our pre-conference schedule definitely prepared us well for anything we’re going to see in the Big East.”

Losses to LSU, No. 19 Florida State and No. 8 Michigan may not make the highlight reel at the end of the year, but the Irish are certainly showing that they are better off for having played top-ranked opponents outside of the conference.

The Bearcats have yet to play a top-10 team this season, but they are more than capable of holding their own against the Irish. Led by junior outside hitter Stephanie Niemer, the Big East Volleyball Player of the Week, and freshman setter Megan Turner, the Freshman of the Week, Cincinnati currently shares first place in the conference with the Irish.

“It’s just really important for us in terms of what we want to accomplish this year,” Brown said. “Cincinnati’s undefeated, [and] we’re undefeated, so it could come down to this match in terms of who wins the conference. We know that in order to be in contention or to have a chance to win it outright, it’s important for us to win.”

The task ahead does not get any easier Sunday, as the Irish take the court against a Cardinals team that was predicted to finish with a second consecutive Big East title in the Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The match will be nationally televised on ESPNU.

“I think we’ll for sure be mentally prepared,” Brown said. “It’s a big match for us. Louisville has been our strongest conference rival since they joined the Big East. Traditionally the matches have been very close and very competitive, and we have every reason to believe that it’ll be the same way this year.”

The Irish lead the lifetime series against Louisville 16-7, but fell to the Cardinals last season in the Big East Championship 3-1. In the end, supremacy in the conference may come down to leadership and experience, two qualities this year’s Irish squad has relied upon all season.

“I think we’re getting a really good team effort, but for sure the strongest leader we have is [senior setter] Jamel [Nicholas],” Brown said. “She’s just been doing an outstanding job keeping everybody focused and playing with a lot of poise and confidence.”

The Irish will face Cincinnati at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and Louisville at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Joyce Center.