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Irish welcome opportunity for conference separation

Conor Kelly | Friday, September 30, 2011

From the season’s onset, Irish coach Debbie Brown has expressed her team’s desire to win the Big East. Though only two games into the conference season, the Irish will get a chance to show that they belong at the top when they host Cincinnati and Louisville, the 2010 Big East runner-up and champion, this weekend.

“This is the biggest weekend of the year for us so far,” senior outside hitter Kristen Dealy said. “If we can take these two matches, we’ll really be ahead in the standings.”

The Irish (8-4, 1-1 Big East) sit at .500 in conference play, good enough for a share of fifth place. Cincinnati and Louisville are both 2-0 and tied at the top of the table. The pair met up last November in the 2010 Big East championship match, and Cincinnati prevailed 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-15).

The Irish will take on Cincinnati first Saturday. The Bearcats (10-6, 2-0), who knocked out Notre Dame from last year’s Big East tournament, boast an impressive offense led by senior Missy Harpenau, whose 197 kills at the clip of 3.52/set puts her at sixth in the Big East through two conference matches.

The Bearcat offense is also as efficient as it is prolific. Cincinatti’s .220 hitting percentage puts it tied with Notre Dame at fifth in the 15-team conference. The Irish look to counter with the defense of freshman Toni Alugbue and junior Hilary Eppink, who lead the team with 32 and 43 blocks, respectively.

Louisville (10-4, 2-0), coming off of straight-set victories over St. John’s and Connecticut, is led by Big East player of the week Lola Arslanbekova. The Uzbekistan native — one of two on the team — leads the Big East with 239 kills, contributing to Louisville’s .265 team hitting percentage.

For the Irish, a top opponent like Louisville is an opportunity to show that they really belong among the best in the Big East.

“Performing well against them is absolutely imperative for us,” Dealy said.

Though the Irish might be tempted to indulge in the pressure and excitement that surrounds a big match, Dealy said that the team has maintained an even keel.

“We like to have a string of good practices leading up to a big match,” Dealy said. “We’ve had that this week. We’re focused and ready.”

The Irish take on Cincinnati at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Louisville at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Joyce Center.

Contact Conor Kelly at ckelly17@nd.edu