Irish set to host No. 1 Penn State at Golden Dome Invitational
Manuel De Jesus | Friday, September 11, 2015
Purcell Pavilion’s arena lights were abruptly shut off. As the darkness set in, the Irish cheered as they sat in clusters across the empty arena. About 20 seconds after the lights were turned off, the video board above the floor flashed on and the team’s new video introduction played. Cheers from the team filled the arena like an echo chamber expressing their excitement for the team’s first home stand this weekend.
Notre Dame (2-4) will start its season at home Friday as it hosts Mississippi State, Eastern Kentucky and No. 1 Penn State in their annual Golden Dome Invitational.
“We can’t wait to have the home-court advantage,” junior middle blocker Katie Higgins said. “Fans and students will be able to see how hard we’ve been working, the new era that we’re in and how much better we are.”
Last season, the Irish finished 6-23, and this year they are much younger across the roster than they were last year. At the Seton Hall Classic, Notre Dame left with a 1-2 record, which included their first win away from South Bend since September 19 of last year against Saint Louis at the Purdue Active Ankle Challenge.
Notre Dame’s next challenge is to improve upon last year’s record at their Golden Dome Invitational where they went 0-3. They’ll face Mississippi State (6-1) on Friday and then Eastern Kentucky (1-7) and the top team in the nation, the Nittany Lions (5-0), on Saturday.
“We’re developing every game and we’re progressing,” Higgins said. “It’s a long-term process and it’s not going to happen instantly, so I don’t think we’ve found our identity exactly yet, but we’re right there. We are so changed and we’re getting there. Each day, each practice and each game, we keep refining ourselves and getting better.”
It won’t be easy to get past Penn State, who is arguably the highlight opponent of the Invitational for the Irish given their ranking. The Nittany Lions have yet to lose a single set this season, and one of those shut outs was against No. 3 Stanford.
Higgins, who is one of three upperclassmen on the team, said new Irish head coach Jim McLaughlin has prepared them well leading up to the Invitational.
“Starting in the spring, when he [McLaughlin] got here, in practice, he’ll set up situations for us,” Higgins said. “Say it’s 24 to 23, game point on Penn State. You’ve got to play every play in practice just like you would be playing in that situation. Obviously they have a great history and a great team, but we have nothing to lose. We’re excited to play against great competition, and it’ll probably draw the best out of us.”
Notre Dame ranks on the bottom end of most statistical categories in the ACC six games into the season, but there are individuals that have been impressive for the Irish thus far. Sophomore setter Maddie Dilfer currently ranks fourth in the ACC in assists, averaging 9.85 per set. Freshman libero Ryann DeJarld has also ranks as one of the top defenders in the conference. She’s averaged 4.08 digs per set, which is 54 more digs than anyone else on the team.
Sophomore outside hitter Sam Fry, who leads the Irish in kills with 75, said it is going to take more than just their game plan to walk away from the Golden Dome Invitational with wins.
“We’re going to work on our mentality,” Fry said. “We have to be gritty, being confident and having positive attitude.”
Higgins was quick to agree with Fry on her thoughts for the keys to playing well this weekend.
“Grit is really big,” Higgins said. “It’s defined as passion and perseverance, and that game [against Penn State] is definitely going to show it.”
Excited to show the country they’re not the same team from a year ago, the Irish are ready to compete in this year’s Golden Dome Invitational, which starts Friday against Mississippi State at 7 p.m at Purcell Pavilion.