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ND Volleyball

ND builds momentum

| Friday, October 10, 2014

The beginning of the season has been a work in progress for the Irish, and just how far they have progressed will be tested once again this weekend when they go on the road and face conference rivals Pittsburgh and Louisville.

Irish senior middle blocker Jeni Houser digs a shot during Notre Dame’s 3-1 loss to Duke on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion. Houser is second on the team in kills per set.Emmet Farnan | The Observer

Irish senior middle blocker Jeni Houser digs a shot during Notre Dame’s 3-1 loss to Duke on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion. Houser is second on the team in kills per set.

Pittsburgh (13-2, 1-1 ACC) got off to a strong start, winning 13 of its first 14 games and dropping just two sets combined in those wins. The Panthers’ only losses so far have against to Colorado early in the season and No. 12 North Carolina in their most recent matchup.

Senior outside hitter Jessica Wynn leads Pittsburgh with 176 kills, and sophomore middle blocker Jenna Potts leads all of the the ACC with 0.9 blocks per set. Like the Panthers, Louisville (10-6, 2-2) is coming off a loss, falling 3-1 at Virginia to drop to .500 in the conference. In the last tournament of the Cardinals’ non-conference schedule, they won the Rice Invitational without dropping a single set.

“We think [Pitt and Louisville] are maybe not top-three [in the conference], but they’re in that next group,” Irish associate head coach Robin Davis said. “We see them as somewhere in between Duke and Syracuse, the teams we played last week, so we’re pretty excited to see where we stand.”

Notre Dame picked up its first ACC win last weekend against Syracuse (7-9, 0-4) in a strong performance, hitting .309 with four players recording 10 kills or more. Later in the weekend, they lost to No. 22 Duke (12-3, 4-0), 3-1, in a hard-fought match that featured 22 ties and eight lead changes.

“We’re excited about the win over Syracuse, we played pretty steady,” Davis said. “Even though we lost, we felt good about [sets] three and four against Duke.”

Notre Dame (4-11, 1-3 ACC) has improved statistically since starting the season 0-6, and Davis said he attributes much of that to keeping a positive attitude.

“I think they’ve been really mature about [the slow start],” he said. “They’re a really strong group; they bring it into the locker room; they bring it into the gym. There are still a lot of girls out there early every practice getting extra touches, so the attitude has been really good.”

The Irish have gone 4-5 following the shaky start, improving in nearly every statistical category over the most recent stretch. In those nine games, they boosted their attack percentage from .154 to .219 and improved their aces per set from 0.75 to 1.24.

Although youth has been a theme for the Irish, with four freshmen getting significant time, the veteran presence of senior middle blocker Jeni Houser and graduate student outside hitter Nicole Smith has been crucial – they lead the team with 2.78 and 2.93 kills per set, respectively. Over the past three games against No. 6 Florida State, Syracuse and No. 25 Duke, Houser has hit .314 with 31 kills on her attacks, and Smith has posted a .354 mark with 36 kills.

“[The team is] getting more hungry after the losses we’ve had,” Davis said. “I think they feel good about their progress overall, and we’re still prepared to do something different and something special in the ACC.”

Notre Dame travels to Pittsburgh for a Friday-night matchup at 7 p.m. in the Fitzgerald Fieldhouse and will proceed to Louisville for a game Sunday in the Cardinal Arena at 2 p.m.

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