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ND VOLLEYBALL: Squad to face tough competition at Rally

Tom Dorwart | Friday, September 9, 2005

The Irish hope to celebrate a championship this weekend.

It’s September, and they’re already at the Final Four – the site of it, anyway.

This weekend Notre Dame (3-0) heads to San Antonio for the University of Texas-San Antonio Dome Rally at the Alamodome. The Irish don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves, but the city of River Walk is right where they want to be in December.

“We still have a lot to work on, obviously,” sophomore setter Ashley Tarutis said.

Though they will face two top-10 teams in No. 8 Southern California (2-2) and No. 6 Florida (5-0) as well as Big 12 foe Oklahoma (4-1), the No. 19 Irish won’t consider a tournament championship an upset.

“[Last weekend’s success] gave us a lot of confidence to be able to play with a lot of highly ranked teams,” said Tarutis, who made The Inn at Saint Mary’s Shamrock Invitational all-tournament team.

The Irish face the Trojans tonight at 7 p.m., the Sooners Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and the Gators Sunday at 11 a.m. The loaded tourney also includes Rice (4-1), host Texas-San Antonio (3-1), LSU (6-0) and No. 13 Texas A&M (5-0).

It’s an NCAA tournament of sorts. The eight team melee will be about as close to Final Four atmosphere as a regular season tournament can get.

USC has beaten Cal Poly and Western Michigan and lost to No. 4 Hawaii and No. 5 Penn State. The Trojans return 11 letterwinners and five starters from last year’s 23-6 Final Four squad that defeated top-seeded Nebraska 3-2 before falling to Minnesota 3-1. The Trojans had won two straight national titles prior to last year’s loss.

Oklahoma’s lone loss came against Alabama. The Sooners return nine letterwinners and five starters from last year’s 12-17 team that finished ninth in the Big 12.

Florida, perhaps the most intimidating group the Irish will meet this weekend, has yet to lose a game this season. The Gators’ closest game was 30-27, and their top win was a sweep against No. 15 UC Santa Barbara. They tied for first in the eastern division of the Southeastern Conference. After an easy first round win, the Gators gave eventual national champion Stanford a scare but lost 3-2. Florida concluded last season with a 28-5 mark.

If Notre Dame plans to show the nation’s elite it belongs, the Irish will have to rely on Tarutis’ leadership on offense.

Tarutis, as always, kept the Irish offense flowing smoothly and methodically in Notre Dame’s own tournament with her quick decision-making with the ball.

She acknowledged she takes pride in getting the attack going.

“I do [take pride], because when you get the offense started, it gives a lot of confidence to the team, if you get a big kill,” she said.

The 5-foot-8 leader was so quick Sunday against Arizona State, she got to the volleyball when she wasn’t even in position. Tarutis “pancaked” a ball, which is when a diving player lays her hand completely flat on the court in order to bounce the ball off to a teammate waiting to bump it over the net. Tarutis downplayed her seemingly miraculous play.

“I wasn’t in the right position, and if I didn’t go all out, then I wasn’t going to get the ball,” she said. “There are a couple of times when [pancaking] is necessary, but it’s not technically good.”

Conventional or not, she’ll do whatever it takes to help her team win.

The pancake gave Notre Dame its 10th point in the deciding fifth game against a scrappy Arizona State squad. The Irish won the match 30-20, 28-30, 21-30, 30-23, 15-10, in part because of Tarutis’ hustle and 65 set assists.

Tarutis will need to continue to lead the Irish attack. She is still without fellow sophomore starters Ellen Heintzman and Adrianna Stasiuk, who are questionable for tonight’s match against USC. Heintzman, who injured her knee in the first match of the season, practiced this week some and will likely play. Stasiuk has been out the entire season so far because of an off-season rib injury. She has done “minimal” workouts in practices. Coach Debbie Brown is unsure of when her outside hitter will return.

Still, the Irish have a hoard of capable players to keep their early season momentum rolling. And while there’s a long way to go on the road to the Final Four, the Irish might as well get used to celebrating in the Alamodome.