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Volleyball: The big stage

Meaghan Veselik | Friday, December 4, 2009

The Irish are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and the 17th time overall, as they take on Ohio University in the opening round tonight.

“It’s our aim to come here and to advance and to win,” Irish coach Debbie Brown said. “We’re taking it one match at a time. We know Ohio is a good team and a strong opponent.”

The Irish received an at-large bid into the tournament after going 14-0 in the Big East regular season but falling to Louisville in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

The Bobcats (26-6, 15-1 MAC) claimed their sixth MAC title in the last seven years by taking down Western Michigan 3-1 on Nov. 22. This year marks Ohio’s seventh-straight NCAA tournament appearance and the fourth meeting of the two teams, with the Bobcats holding a 3-1 edge over the Irish.

Since her arrival as head coach for the Irish in 1990, Brown has led her team to the national tournament 15 times, earning consecutive bids from 1992-2006. Prior to her arrival, Notre Dame had made only one visit to the tournament. The Irish have an all-time record of 14-16 in NCAA Tournament play, including six trips to the round of 16 and a 1993 finish in the quarterfinals. This year, Brown earned the Big East Coach of the Year honors, her sixth since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995.

In the team’s last NCAA appearance three years ago, the Irish fell to Wisconsin in the first round. The six seniors on this year’s team were freshmen then and have been working to get back to the tournament for the last two seasons.

“We’re led by a very motivated group,” Brown said of the seniors.

The class of 2010 has been making its own mark in the Notre Dame and Big East record books this fall. Outside hitter Serinity Phillips made her 1,000th career kill Oct. 10 against Cincinnati, becoming the 18th player in program history to do so. On Oct. 19, she also picked up the Big East Player of the Week Award, and has made 324 kills this season.

Classmate Jamel Nicholas, the team assists leader, currently has 3,045 career assists, making 1,096 of the team’s 1,246 this season and placing her with the fifth-most in school history.  She is also ranked 27th nationally with 11.16 assists/set. Nicholas and fellow senior outside-hitter Christina Kaelin have each earned their own Big East Player of the Week Awards.

However, the seniors are not the only ones who have worked to get to where they are this weekend. This Irish team has relied heavily on its underclassmen’s experience throughout the season.

“There is no one on this team that doesn’t believe in what we can do,” Brown said. “We’re excited to have this opportunity to practice and play this week and to be here this weekend.”

Standing out among the underclassmen are sophomore outside hitter Kristen Dealy and junior middle blocker Kelly Sciacca. Dealy was named Big East Player of the Week for the week of Sept. 14. She is second on the team in kills and points with 307 and 349.5, respectively. Sciacca is second in blocks with 90.

Overall, the Irish rank in the top 50 nationally in hitting percentage (25th, .258), win-loss (30th, .778), kills per set (36th, 13.86), assists per set (46th, 12.71) and blocks per set (49th, 2.41). Ohio ranks 11th, 23rd, 19th, 29th, and 15th in those categories, respectively.
Despite Notre Dame’s statistics and undefeated regular conference season, the team was unable to take the Big East tournament title after winning a string of 15 consecutive matches, and lost at Florida Nov. 28, 3-1. Since then, Brown has been doing some fine-tuning on the court.

“We’ve changed and adjusted some things, have overcome some injuries that were hurting us before and have worked on getting people healthy.”

The Irish will have to be at their best this weekend as the winner of Friday’s match will face either 13th- seeded Michigan or Niagara Saturday. Positioned in the Stanford Regional, the bottom half of their bracket features Saint Mary’s (Calif.), UC Santa Barbara, Long Island and Stanford, a team Notre Dame already defeated earlier this season.

Of the 64 teams in the tournament, the Irish have faced nine (Cincinnati, Florida, Florida State, Louisville, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Stanford, and Tennessee) and defeated four (Cincinnati, Miami, Stanford and Louisville). It is also the first time since 2006 that three Big East teams have advanced to the national tournament (Notre Dame, Louisville and Cincinnati). First-and second- round action will occur on 16 campus sites with winners advancing to four pre-determined regional sites.

Notre Dame will face Ohio University today at 5:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“We know there is nothing to save anything for,” Brown said. “We’re going after it and are putting our best foot forward.”