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ND Volleyball: Irish miss tournament, finish fourth in Big East

Conor Kelly | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Debbie Brown considers earning a berth in the NCAA tournament the benchmark of her team’s success, so despite a second-place finish in the Big East tournament, the Irish coach has to consider the 2011 season a disappointment.

“Every year we expect to make the NCAA tournament, and we’re obviously disappointed that we failed to do so,” Brown said of her team that finished fourth in the Big East with an 8-6 record. “I think we were very good in some areas, but we ultimately [fell] short of our own lofty expectations.”

The Irish were hampered by a sluggish early and middle portion of the season in which the team lost three in a row to Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh in September and October.

Despite a three-game winning streak to end the year that catapulted the Irish into fourth place, the slow start meant the team needed a conference championship to move on to NCAA tournament.

And they almost got it.

The Irish moved past Syracuse 3-1 before upsetting Louisville by the same score. Facing top-ranked and 12-2 Cincinnati, Notre Dame fell 3-0, not losing a set by more than four points and taking the Bearcats to overtime in the final set.

“We really got better as the season went on. At the end of the season we weren’t making all the unforced errors we were at the beginning,” Brown said. “We really dug ourselves a hole with our play in the middle of the year, but I was happy with our little run through the Big East.”

To pilot such a young group – the team consisted of only two seniors and a pair of juniors – Brown relied on the steady play and leadership of senior captains Kristen Dealy and Frenchy Silva. The Southern Californian duo finished impressive careers with productive senior seasons, both eclipsing 1,000 digs over four years while Dealy recorded more than 1,000 kills.

“It was the type of deal where we couldn’t afford not to have them on the court,” Brown said. “Their game was phenomenal the entire year. Their experience was key, and on and off the court they did a fantastic job of leading the team.”

Dealy underwent shoulder surgery in the spring, and put in gutsy performance after gutsy performance as she gained strength in her hitting arm throughout the year.

“Kristen is one of the most versatile players in the country,” Brown said. “It’s very rare to have a player record both 1,000 digs and 1,000 kills in a season. That mix of offense and defense is very special. Even when her shoulder wasn’t 100 percent, she found ways to make an impact and her hitting got much more powerful as the season went on.”

Under the leadership of Silva and Dealy, Brown saw the development and maturation of a talented freshman class, highlighted by right side hitters Toni Alugbue and Jeni Houser. Houser led the team with 320 kills, and Algubue finished first on the squad with 98 blocks.

The 12 returning players, combined with the incoming freshmen class, have Brown excited about 2012.

“We’re really optimistic again for the coming year,” Brown said. “Individually and as a team we’ve made big strides, and we’re really excited about the freshmen next year. We always set our goals high.”

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]