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ND Volleyball: Undefeated conference season highlights Irish season

Meaghan Veselik | Thursday, May 13, 2010

Early exits in both the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament could not diminish Notre Dame’s accomplishment of going undefeated through the Big East regular season.

“We [were] very pleased with the season,” said Irish coach Debbie Brown, the AVCA Division I Northeast Region Coach of the Year and the Big East Coach of the Year. “We had a strong start and had an incredibly strong run through the Big East regular season, going undefeated in conference.”

The Irish (21-7, 15-0 Big East) claimed sole possession of the Big East regular season championship before falling in the conference tournament semifinals to Louisville, and then to Ohio in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The losses, however, don’t trump all of what Notre Dame accomplished this season.

“Our side out efficiency was strong all year for us,” Brown said. “We had great offensive options and the experience of the seniors was a huge positive factor. We improved in every aspect of the game. Our offense got stronger, we blocked more balls and held our opponents to low hitting percentages and our passing and serving were solid.”

The team’s six seniors led the team throughout the season, on and off the court.

Tara Enzweiler, Megan Fesl, Christina Kaelin, Kim Kristoff, Jamel Nicholas and Serinity Phillips, who were named the nation’s fifth-best recruiting class when they entered the program as freshmen, worked to make the entire team close — which certainly paid off for the Irish, Brown said.

“Our team chemistry was strong. They were always there for each other,” Brown said of her players. “They had the motivation to play hard for each other.  It was easy for them to celebrate when their teammates did well and natural for them to pick up their teammates when they struggled.”

Kaelin, Phillips and Nicholas earned first team all-Big East honors and junior Kellie Sciacca was named to the second team for the second consecutive season. All four also earned all-region honors.

Kaelin finished the season tied for sixth in league play for kills, including 11 double-figure kill performances. She posted a career-high 20 on Oct. 10 against Cincinnati. Nicholas finished her Notre Dame career with 3,094 assists, the fifth-most in school history. A versatile Phillips posted at least 16 kills in five conference competitions. She also was the 18th player in Irish history to record at least 1,000 career kills with her total of 1,154 over four seasons.

Sciacca, the Northeast Region’s Freshman of the Year in 2007, led the conference in individual hitting percentage.

Brown said the outstanding individual performances led to two events that defined the season.

“Two things come to mind immediately,” she said. “Certainly our win over Stanford was huge and set such a good tone for us for the season.  Additionally, our undefeated run through the Big East was particularly rewarding. It was a huge accomplishment and we were able to do it because the team was so committed to making it happen.”

Before falling to Louisville on the Cardinals’ home court, 3-2 (24-26, 25-16, 18-25, 25-16, 15-13), in the conference tournament semifinals and the first match of the tournament to go five sets, the Irish were on a 15-match winning streak, tying the second-longest in program history.

Ending the season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was not the ideal end for the Irish, but they didn’t go down easy, again falling 3-2 (23-25, 25-16, 20-25, 25-15, 15-7).

“I believe we played the best we could at the time,” Brown said. “We were physically down with three of our starters at less than full strength.  We gave all we could and fell short. It was disappointing for the season to be over, particularly since we had such a good run throughout the rest of the season.”

None of Notre Dame’s success couldn’t have happened without the strong leadership and skills of its seniors, Brown said.

“As I’ve said on so many occasions throughout the year, the seniors were absolutely critical to the success of the team,” she said. “They have given all they could throughout their four years.  Each of them has grown individually and as a group.  They all brought different strengths to the table and the combination of all of them was tremendous.”