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Volleyball: Returning corps drives experienced Irish squad

Conor Kelly | Friday, August 17, 2012

When the Irish returned to campus on Aug. 8, Irish coach Debbie Brown found herself surrounded by a slew of determined returning players – including 12 of 14 from the 2011 squad that fell to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament final last November.

Though Brown lost two stalwarts in senior co-captains Frenchy Silva and Kirsten Dealy, she said she feels this year’s team, which has increased in size to 17 players (with four incoming freshmen and the transfer of sophomore libero Erin Klosterman from Saint Mary’s) has positioned itself well to continue their legacy.

“It can be quite a blow when you lose players of their caliber,” Brown said. “But to see the ethic and improvement of this year’s team, I think we should be fine.”

One position for which the Irish will need to find an answer is at libero, the defensive specialist. Silva held down the spot for all four years of her tenure, collecting more than 1,000 career digs. Klosterman and freshman Taylor Morey will join sophomore Kathleen Severyn at the position. Just a week into practice, Brown said Morey has the early edge.

“Taylor is a really talented and really studied passer,” Brown said. “Factor in her sparkplug attitude and natural intensity, and she’s the type of player who could be like a Frenchy [Silva] for us. She has a lot of potential for such a young player.”

The other three members of Notre Dame’s No. 22-ranked freshman class – setter Hannah Muzzonigro, middle blocker Annie Flynn and outside hitter Haley Bonneval – may find a slower path to the starting lineup, for no other reason than the talent above them on the depth chart. The team returns its statistical leaders in kills (sophomore Jeni Houser and junior tri-captain Andrea McHugh) and blocks (sophomore Toni Alugbue and senior Hilary Eppink), along with a mix of talented returning starters that includes senior tri-captain Marie Roof, junior setter Sammie Brown and junior tri-captain Maggie Brindock.

“There will be a lot of players stepping into more important competitive and leadership roles this season,” Brown said. “But I think that is also accompanied by tremendous progress from where they were last season. Just to look at where Jeni [Houser] and Toni [Alugbue] are now versus where they were as freshmen, it’s a phenomenal improvement, even for such strong players.”

The Irish will be tested early in the season as they travel to Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 24 when the team will open its season against defending national champion UCLA before taking on Saint Louis and Nebraska in a round-robin.

“UCLA is going to be a huge challenge for us and a great way to start the season,” Brown said. “It’s the start of a very tough schedule, and we didn’t know they would be ranked number one and defending national champions when we scheduled them, but we’re very excited for it.”

The Irish will host both the Shamrock Invitational and the Golden Dome Invitational, scheduled on either side of a trip to Southern California for the USC Tournament, before getting into the teeth of the Big East schedule in late September. Traditional powers like Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette await an Irish team that will hopefully have been galvanized by the rigor of its non-conference schedule.

“The teams in our conference are getting stronger every year, and I think that our early schedule will really help us prepare for that,” Brown said. “But right now we’re coming along. Our captains are making sure everyone is taking care of themselves and working hard with positive attitudes.”

The Irish open the season against UCLA on Aug. 24 in Lincoln, Neb., at the Nebraska Coliseum.