Greason: Irish are ready for success in ACC
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, August 18, 2017
When the Irish made the move to the ACC in 2013, they endured some very visible growing pains.
After spending years as some of the top teams in the Big East — Notre Dame won seven conference titles in its final year in the Big East alone, with men’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis, the indoor women’s track team, the outdoor women’s track squad, women’s golf and rowing each bringing home a crown — the move to the more competitive ACC provided a bit of a wakeup call for Irish teams that had faced minimal challenges in conference play over the years.
With the exception of women’s basketball, which has thrived in the ACC, given room to breathe from perennial Big East and national rival UConn, winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles four consecutive times (every year it has been in the conference), Notre Dame teams have struggled to find their footing. However, it appears that the majority of the Irish squads are starting to make their mark on and feel more at home in the ACC.
In its final season in the Big East, volleyball finished with a record of 20-10. The next season, the first in the ACC, it went 7-13 against conference opponents, and by the 2014-2015 season, the Irish record had fallen to 6-23, winning just three matches against conference opponents, prompting the removal of longtime head coach Debbie Brown. In just its second season under head coach Jim McLaughlin, however, the Irish were tied for first place in the ACC until past halfway through the season. The team has done a 180-degree turn-around and is poised to win an ACC title this season, just two years after going just 2-18 in the conference.
While its record does not shine on paper, softball made strides in the 2017 season. After struggling at the start of the season with non-conference tournaments against nationally-ranked teams, the Irish began to find their stride as they regained home field advantage, going 14-6 at home and 34-23 overall. The Irish found ways to dig deep and win series against ACC opponents, finishing just above the .500 mark in the conference. While this was a regression from years past in the ACC, it is a mark of the fact that the Irish have found a way to be competitive against the top-tier warm-weather schools with whom they share a conference.
Men’s and women’s golf are two programs that have struggled since making the transition to the ACC. Both found frequent success in the Big East, but playing against so many warm-weather schools in the lies of Clemson, Miami and Florida State has proven to be a challenge for the Irish, who are forced to take their practice inside for much of the year.
After struggling throughout the four seasons in the ACC, Notre Dame decided it was time for a change at the helm of the men’s golf program and replaced head coach Jim Kubinski with John Handrigan — an assistant at Florida. After a multiple-win season under Kubinski, Handrigan will look to carry some of the progress the squad has made into a successful ACC program this season.
Men’s basketball is another top-tier program that has surprised many as it has settled into its role in the ACC. After winning the conference in 2015, it advanced to the ACC tournament final in 2017, and found success on a national level, reaching back-to-back Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016. The ACC poses some of the stiffest competition in the country for Mike Brey’s squad, with UNC, Louisville and Duke as regular opponents. And yet, the team has found a way to be successful, something that was not guaranteed with the move, like it was for Muffet McGraw’s women’s team.
Notre Dame’s move to the ACC was a bold one. It forced the Irish into a conference in which it plays schools that pose a real challenge for them in every sports. And the switch certainly has not been an easy one for most of the teams. But, going into their fifth season in the ACC, Notre Dame is settling in and finally ready to meet the higher standards the ACC requires for victories.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.