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ND VOLLEYBALL: Big East Champions look to repeat

Tom Dorwart | Thursday, August 18, 2005

When asked if this year’s Irish volleyball team has a season motto, veteran head coach Debbie Brown didn’t give anything away, but sounded confident her team would come up with something big.”We haven’t come up with anything yet,” she said. “I think they’re kind of working on it and trying to get to know each other. I’m sure they’ll think of something.” Last year’s Big East regular season and tournament champions are still shaping their 2005 identity. “We wanted to wait for the freshmen to get in and to get to play with them a little bit [before we come up with a motto],” senior co-captain and libero Meg Henican said. “And just kind of let our team develop before we decided on something because we wanted it to be something that we all could use, and it would be a good reminder for all of us.” With a strong nucleus of returning players, including five seniors, the Irish veterans recognize the need to gel with the freshmen. “We have four freshmen, and they’re a big part of our team, and we wanted them to be involved in that,” Henican said. While the motto is a work in progress, one thing is definite. The Irish want to win – again. Nine of the top 10 players in nearly every statistical category – defense, sets, serves, blocks and kills – are back.The team returns pre-season Big East player of the year and 2004 third-team All-American Lauren Brewster, senior outside hitter/middle blocker Lauren Kelbley, also a selection to the pre-season all-Big East team, and the leader Henican. Senior setter Kelly Burrell, senior middle blocker/opposite Carolyn Cooper and junior Danielle Herndon will play important roles this season along with versatile sophomores Adrianna Stasiuk, Ashley Tarutis and Ellen Heintzman. Despite all the accolades the seniors have received throughout their careers, despite all the wins they’ve accumulated, they are hungry for more. “We always set our goals pretty high, but I think with so many seniors and so many returnees coming back, we, of course, expect great things this year,” Henican said. Notre Dame has won the Big East regular season title nine out of the past 10 years and the tournament title eight out of the past 10 years and made the NCAA tournament 13 consecutive seasons. Last season, the Irish took both titles and finished with a 21-9 record after falling to Wisconsin 3-0 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “We definitely want to finish stronger than we did last year,” Brown said.According to Henican, the goal is to finish quite a bit stronger. “My goal every year is to win a national championship. We have some smaller ones along the way. We want to win our conference, but [to win the national championship is] our ultimate goal.” Though the Irish have dominated the Big East for much of the 90s and for the beginning part of this decade, they have yet to advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 1997. If Notre Dame is to repeat its Big East title, improve on last year’s record and better its 2004 NCAA tournament run, it must accomplish those feats against some of the nation’s top squads. The Irish play five matches against pre-season American Volleyball Coaches Association [AVCA] top 20 teams. A perennial in the Top 25, Louisville is a newcomer in the Big East Conference. The Cardinals, ranked 14th in the pre-season poll, are on Notre Dame’s schedule at least once this regular season but the two could also meet in the Big East Conference tournament. Last time the Irish played the former Conference USA team, the Irish fell 3-0 in the opening round of the 2003 NCAA tournament. Other top teams Notre Dame faces include Texas, Southern Cal, Florida and Tennessee. Eight of the 14 non-conference foes the Irish were 2004 NCAA tournament participants. Notre Dame, ranked 27th in the AVCA, opens the season against rival Michigan Saturday, Aug. 27 at the Joyce Center. “We can’t wait,” Henican said. “We’re excited.”