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ND Volleyball

Berry: McLaughlin’s risk to coach at ND is paying off

| Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Jim McLaughlin’s risk to coach Notre Dame is finally paying off.

Irish sophomore outside hitter Jemma Yeadon attacks the ball during Notre Dame's 3-1 win over Valparaiso at Compton Family Ice Arena on Aug. 25.Chris Collins | The Observer

Irish sophomore outside hitter Jemma Yeadon attacks the ball during Notre Dame’s 3-1 win over Valparaiso at Compton Family Ice Arena on Aug. 25.

Coming off arguably his best season professionally in 2014 — a 31-3 record with Washington capped off by a Round of 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament — expectations were very high for McLaughlin.

After all, the Irish head coach is the only coach to win a national volleyball title with both men’s and women’s teams, winning one on the men’s side of the sport with USC in 1990 and the other with Washington’s women in 2005. When McLaughlin made the move back to Notre Dame in 2015 — he had spent one season as assistant coach for the Irish in 1996 — it seemed as if the program had found a coach that could resurrect a once successful program that had slowly declined over the years.

There weren’t any surprises. McLaughlin was fully aware of the struggling team he was inheriting, but was willing to take the risk, even if it meant a blemish on his coaching resume.

In his first campaign, the Irish finished 7-25, proving that it would be a while before the Irish would be ready to compete for a national championship. The 2015 season was only the second season in his thirty-year coaching career that a McLaughlin team finished below .500, and the first time in thirteen seasons he had failed to qualify for a postseason tournament. Even at one of the team’s low points, the Irish began to show signs of improvement, as they garnered one more win than the previous season, when Notre Dame finished with an even worse 6-23 record. It was a start.

Last year showed even more promise. Under McLaughlin, the Irish finished with a 22-10 record overall, finishing sixth in the ACC standings with a 13-7 record, and tallying their first winning season in four years. The team was aided by McLaughlin’s first recruiting class that featured Under Armour All-American Jemma Yeadon, who led the Irish in kills last season, and Under Armour All-American honorable mention Lauren Woodard. The 2016 season started strong, but faltered at the end, in part, due to a key injury to junior setter Caroline Holt, who McLaughlin has called the “quarterback” of his team.

Heading into his third year, McLaughlin and company are off to the second best start in team history. Early in the season the Irish are now mimicking the success of pass McLaughlin teams as they head into their third tournament with a 6-0 record, having only dropped three total sets on the season. Learning from last year’s mistakes, McLaughlin is taking precaution earlier to ensure that his players are getting enough rest by mixing up the starting lineup to allow his younger players to gain some well-needed playing experience, while preventing unnecessary injury to the veterans.

Although the Irish are off to a fast start, a true test to their progression as a team will come when they face No. 24 ranked Ohio State on Saturday in the Costal Carolina Classic.

McLaughlin has also shifted his focus from just winning one game at a time to now eyeing to win the ACC championship this season, and since the Irish are currently tied for first in the division, it’s a very plausible goal.

The Irish may not be the national title contenders McLaughlin is used to coaching, but they have continually progressed over the last few seasons, proving that McLaughlin was smart to take a risk on the program at the height of his coaching career.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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