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Kelly: Rough stretch should not damper expectation (Sept. 12)

Conor Kelly | Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It is pretty standard coach-speak to say that games against big-time opponents reveal the character and true talent of a team, and it is certainly something Irish coach Debbie Brown has emphasized during Notre Dame’s Big East tilts through the last few years.

This year is no different.

Just nine games into the season, the Irish have already faced four top-20 opponents in UCLA, Nebraska, USC and San Diego, a veritable who’s-who of the upper echelon of NCAA volleyball. To the credit of the Irish and their schedule, it represents a commitment to seeking out and Unfortunately, they have gone an unsightly 0-4 against those teams, sometimes putting forth inspired efforts, but not yet victories.

Though the Irish sport a winning record with a 5-4 mark, their wins have come against St. Louis, Alabama-Birmingham, Eastern Kentucky, Buffalo and Cal Poly. Though the season is still young and the Irish have yet to enter Big East play, they have shown a knack for winning games they should win, but also a disturbing paucity of victories against the top competition on their schedule. Though the team took one set from No. 1 UCLA in the season opener and pushed No. 17 San Diego to five sets this past Sunday, it has failed to show so far that it belongs back in the NCAA tournament.

Thanks in part to a rough patch in the middle of the 2011 regular season, not even a run to the Big East tournament final could salvage a spot in the NCAA’s for the Irish, marking the second year in a row that the team failed to qualify. After losing only two players to graduation, Notre Dame is poised to make their mark on the volleyball landscape in 2012.

They certainly have the talent to make it happen. The team is loaded in the frontcourt with junior captain and former Big East freshman of the year Andrea McHugh and the sophomore duo of outside hitters Jeni Houser and Toni Alugbue (combined 250 kills already for over half Notre Dame’s total on the season), who have come into their own after promising freshmen campaigns. Freshman libero Taylor Morey has stepped into the starting role vacated by graduated captain Frenchy Silva, and has been sensational in her first college matches, averaging 16.2 digs per game.

In the end, it will be Big East play that determines whether the Irish deserve a seat at the table at the season, and it very well may be the case that this gauntlet of a non-conference schedule galvanizes the Irish going forward. But until they show that, more than just competing, they can actually beat some of the best teams in the country, they will not have truly arrived.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.