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Irish split pair of Big East thrillers

Jared Jedick | Monday, November 3, 2008

It was a weekend of extreme finishes for Notre Dame.

The Irish beat Syracuse in five sets only to see their promising weekend go up in smoke with a five set loss to Big East cellar dweller Marquette. It was the second year in a row and the second time in the program’s history that the team has lost to the Eagles.

“There does not seem to be a logical explanation for the level of performance,” head coach Debbie Brown said. “We did not have the right attitude or focus.”

Barring a historic breakdown at the top of the Big East, the loss to Marquette all but eliminates the Irish (12-12; 7-4 Big East) from contention for the regular season Big East crown. The Irish now stand in sixth in the Big East, trailing St. John’s (18-7; 9-1 Big East), Cincinnati (22-5; 9-2 Big East), Louisville (12-10; 8-3 Big East), Connecticut (18-7; 7-3 Big East), and Pittsburgh (15-10; 7-3 Big East).

The weekend started off great for the Irish when they earned a win against Syracuse (15-12; 6-4 Big East). Notre Dame notched a .377 hitting percentage to set the school record for a five-set match. The previous Notre Dame record was .346 set against San Francisco in 1991.

Five Irish players finished with more than 10 kills in the match. Junior outside hitter Christina Kaelin had 17 kills for a .343 hitting percentage, junior outside hitter Serinity Phillips had 13 digs and 16 kills for a .375 hitting percentage, sophomore outside hitter Kellie Sciacca had four blocks and 19 kills for a .577 hitting percentage, and senior middle blocker Justine Stremick and freshman outside hitter Kristen Dealy both had 11 kills.

The Irish more than doubled the Orange’s point total in the first and final sets (25-12; 15-7) but found Syracuse a much tougher challenge in the middle sets. The Irish hit for an astounding .800 hitting percentage in the first set.

“That first set was the best set we have played all year,” head coach Debbie Brown said.

The Irish dropped the second and fourth sets in close contests, but the team’s balanced play allowed Notre Dame to hang in there for the five set victory.

The Irish again saw a match go to five sets only to fall to formerly downtrodden Marquette on a day that saw Phillips put in a performance that notched a place in the Notre Dame history books.

Phillips pitched in with 25 kills on a .375 average, 10 digs and a career-high nine blocks, narrowly missing the first triple-double for the Irish since 2004.

“There were some good matchups, but the whole team helped a lot. The team did great in the passing, the setting, and everything,” Phillips said. “I was doing a lot of visualization. It really is mental. I was taking coaches’ advice and talking to the team.”

The first set started with the Irish jumping out to a 17-12 advantage on the power of eight kills and four blocks from Phillips. Marquette answered right back with an eight point run that put them on top. The Golden Eagles would hold on to win the set 28-26.

The Irish then seemed to take control of the match by winning the next two sets 25-22 and 25-20, but Marquette grabbed the momentum by building on a new-found intensity in the fourth set. The Golden Eagles won the fourth set and did not relinquish control.

Many of the starters did not start well for the Irish, according to Brown, who decided to try some new players out from the bench.

“Kaelin was playing bad, so were most of the starters,” Brown said. “It was not fair to have our backups sitting when they were playing that poorly.”

The loss was devastating for the Irish, who had hoped to win out in order to challenge for the Big East title, according to head coach Debbie Brown. They will now most likely have to rely on having a great performance in the Big East tournament.

“Honestly we did not take them for granted. We know how well they can play coming in from last year” Phillips said. “We know we can’t take them lightly. Obviously they are always playing their hardest against us, and we have to keep strong and practice to do our best.”

The bright spot in the loss is that the Irish may have some motivation to always bring their best play no matter who their opponent is.

“We’ll forget about it for now, but we are going to keep it in the back of our mind for next year when we play them,” Phillips said. “We are going to get over the hump and keep playing strong.”

Brown knows that the team has a long road even to make the Big East tournament.

“We cannot think about the tournament right now,” Brown said. “We need to focus on winning the rest of our matches.”

The Irish will continue the Big East schedule next Sunday against Rutgers in Piscataway, N. J.