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ND Volleyball: Irish tied for first in conference at midpoint of season

Joe Meixell | Thursday, October 9, 2008

After reaching the midpoint of their season, the Irish find themselves tied atop the Big East standings with St. John’s, Pittsburgh and Georgetown and in position to have a very good second half.

“You can ask anyone on the team, and they would all say that they would like to have a better record,” head coach Debbie Brown said. “But we are definitely going in the right direction.”

According to Brown, the Irish (8-8; 3-1 Big East) set three primary goals at the beginning of the season – to go undefeated at home, win two of their non-conference tournaments, and win the regular season title in the Big East. Although the first two goals were not achieved, the third and most important goal – winning the Big East regular season title – is right within their grasp.

“It’s still pretty early,” Brown said. “But to have your first four Big East games on the road and come out 3-1 puts us in pretty good position.”

The Irish have already defeated two of the Big East favorites in convincing fashion on the road this season – South Florida (11-7; 2-2 Big East) and Louisville (6-8; 2-2 Big East). Louisville was picked by the Big East coaches to win the conference this year.

“Although it was great to beat them, we can’t rest on the past,” Brown said. “Against [South Florida] we played very well with a lot of intensity, and against Louisville I didn’t think we played as well, but we still found a way to win. Going forward it is not going to be easy.”

Adding significance to these victories is the fact that they have all been on the road in hostile environments. The Irish will finally get a travel break this weekend and play West Virginia (5-10; 0-4 Big East) and Pittsburgh (10-8; 3-1 Big East) in front of their home fans for the first time in three weeks.

“It’s not really easier to play at home,” Brown said. “But it does give you a lot more control over everything. Everything is more familiar and you don’t have to travel, so you hope you play well at home.”

The first half of the season has been partly characterized by a severe case of the injury bug. Junior outside hitter Serenity Phillips has just returned from a two-week stint on the sidelines with an ankle injury. Much of the rest of the team has been banged up as well.

“We’ve had the injury bug already,” Brown said. “Hopefully we will be able to come back strong, but injuries happen sometimes. Luckily we have been able to compensate for it so far.”

With the Irish sitting atop the Big East despite all these injuries, there should be a renewed energy when the team finally starts to get healthier.

“We’ve moved things around to deal with injuries more than we would have liked to,” Brown said. “But we found a way to win by playing different positions.”

The brightest spot for the team has been its offense. Notre Dame has the highest hitting percentage in the conference at a .301 clip. The Irish also lead the Big East in assists per game at 14.43 and kills per game at 15.

“I am pretty pleased with how the offense has played so far,” Brown said. “We have really progressed.”

Leading the Irish offense so far have been junior outside hitter Christina Kaelin with 3.25 kills per set, sophomore outside hitter Kellie Sciacca with 2.59 kills per set, and freshman outside hitter Kristen Dealy with 2.67 kills per set.

Dealy has been a pleasant surprise for the Irish so far this year.

“Dealy is doing a really, really good job,” Brown said. “Whether its passing, defense, or serving, she is playing everything very well. She has really stepped in.”

What worries Brown, however, is the state of the defense and the lack of opportunities that are being generated for their potent offense.

“Our hitting percentage is very good, but our defense is not so good,” Brown said. “We’ve struggled with our serves, our blocks and our defense in general. We need to practice our serves more.”

The Irish will look to improve their overall defense and continue their initial dominance of the Big East this weekend at home when they play West Virginia and Pittsburgh.