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ND Volleyball: Homecourt wins develop team’s underclassmen

Conor Kelly | Monday, September 3, 2012

After facing two of the nation’s top teams last weekend in No. 1 UCLA and No. 4 Nebraska, the Irish came out rejuvenated by the stiff competition and swept their slate at the Shamrock Invitational at the Joyce Center.

The team captured 9 of 11 sets en route to victories over Alabama-Birmingham, Buffalo and Eastern Kentucky. Irish coach Debbie Brown credited last weekend’s gauntlet of a schedule for much of her team’s improved play.

“The benefits of having played such great competition are many,” Brown said. “We really got a picture of the way the top teams in the country are playing, and we learned a lot about ourselves. Our increasing knowledge showed this weekend. It’s things like not going for a kill on every swing that help us keep our unforced errors down.”

Though Brown might have seen greater maturity from her squad, there was no shortage of offensive firepower on display, especially from the tandem of sophomore outside hitters Toni Alugbue and Jeni Houser. The duo combined for 93 kills on the weekend (49 for Alubue and 44 for Houser) and paced an Irish squad that hit at over a .300 clip for the three games. Alugbue alone slugged .700 on Saturday against Buffalo, joining Mary Kate Waller as the only Irish player to hit .700 in a four-set match. Though Waller hit .750 in a match in 1986, she did it on only 20 attempts. Alugbue attempted 30 and finished with 21 kills in a thoroughly dominating performance that didn’t include an error. On Sunday, she was named tournament MVP, narrowly edging Houser for the honor.

Coming off the disappointment of falling to Nebraska just five days earlier, the Irish struggled out of the gate but finished strong in dispatching UAB on Friday behind a career-high 20 kills from Houser. The 3-1 (20-25, 25-23, 27-25, 25-23) victory was more evidence for Brown of her team’s increasing resiliency.

“We made some of the same errors that we did last weekend against UAB, but we were still able to win,” Brown said. “It’s tough to come from behind.”

The Irish were helped by strong efforts by Alugbue (11 kills) and juniors Andrea McHugh (10 kills) and Andie Olsen (10 kills). Freshman libero Taylor Morey paced the team in kills with 16.

On Saturday, Alubue’s transcendent performance led the Irish to a four-set victory over Buffalo, 3-1 (25-23, 25-10, 23-25,25-18) at the Joyce Center. Houser and McHugh also notched double-digit kills for the Irish. Morey showed the talent that has enabled her to grab the starting libero spot as a freshman in grabbing 21 digs, the second time in her short career she has notched over 20 in a match.

The Irish took care of business in straight sets on Sunday, putting away Eastern Kentucky in dominating fashion. Alugbue finished her strong weekend with 17 kills and was later joined on the all-tournament team by Houser and junior Maggie Brindock (111 assists, 28 digs).

For Brown, the emergence of Alugbue and Houser as formidable frontcourt has been a blessing for the Irish.

“We want to have an attack that is both balanced and powerful,” Brown said. “Having those two playing at this level, joined with Andrea McHugh, makes us really comfortable going forward.”

McHugh and senior Hillary Eppink both suffered minor injuries but are expected to play next weekend when the Irish travel to California for the USC tournament.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]