Irish cruise to undefeated start at Golden Dome Invitational
Elizabeth Greason | Monday, August 29, 2016
When Notre Dame stepped out onto the gold medal court from the 2012 London Olympics — which had been placed in Purcell Pavilion for the Golden Dome Invitational — for their season opener Friday, it felt prepared to turn the tables on their unsuccessful 2015 season.
When the Irish (3-0) stepped off that same court for the final time this weekend, they had done just that, winning nine straight sets to close out the weekend undefeated.
Notre Dame’s first challenge came against Seton Hall on Friday evening. The Irish came out victorious, shutting down the Pirates (0-3) in straight sets, 3-0.
The play of junior middle blocker Sam Fry and sophomore outside hitter Rebecca Nunge early on calmed the Irish and led the team into a rhythm. Their eight kills apiece in the match allowed the Irish to build momentum over the Pirates, who struggled to find consistency and communication in the absence of senior libero Tessa Fournier. Junior outside hitter Maddie Plumlee led the Irish with ten kills, and her steady service game regularly targeted Seton Hall’s weaker backcourt.
In the second set, Notre Dame played more consistently, which Irish head coach Jim McLaughlin said the squad still needs to improve on.
“I thought when we got tight and under pressure a little bit, we found our rhythm,” McLaughlin said. “But we’ve got to be able to maintain it. There are some ebbs and flows in the game, and we’re still shaken by them a little bit, so we lose our rhythm.”
The most memorable points in the match came from junior libero Natalie Johnson. She pancaked herself on multiple occasions, barely sliding a hand between the ball and the court, extending the point and giving the Irish the opportunity to earn the point when it seemed like a lost cause.
The second set was almost error free for the Irish, who were able to recover quickly from a poor pass, a lack of communication or a lost point. Eliminating mistakes has been a major focus for the team, according to McLaughlin, and committing only five errors to the Pirates’ nine allowed the Irish the take care of the second set, 25-20.
In what would be the final set of Notre Dame’s home opener, the Irish took control. Sophomore libero Ryann DeJarld set the pace for her team, controlling the backcourt with a team-high 16 digs in the match while junior outside hitter Sydney Kuhn and senior middle blocker Katie Higgins pounded the Pirates at the net. Johnson served for the third and final set, which the Irish won, 25-19, on another error courtesy of the Pirates.
Notre Dame’s second game of the Invitational had a different challenge for the Irish — Cleveland State was a much taller team than Seton Hall — but ended with the same positive outcome for the Irish, as the team took down the Vikings (2-1) in straight sets.
The Irish changed up their starting lineup slightly, starting sophomore middle blocker Meg Morningstar and freshman outside hitter Jemma Yeadon which, as McLaughlin noted, was meant to give more players a chance to step up.
“[We’re] just playing people and giving people opportunities,” McLaughlin said. “And we’ve got to continue to do that until somebody takes charge and owns a position.”
After falling into a three-point hole to start the match, the Irish went on an eight to one run led by Nunge and Fry. Nunge, in particular, built on her momentum from Friday’s game, picking up seven kills in the first set alone. The Irish controlled the rest of the set, as Morningstar and Kuhn both scored multiple times, while Yeadon scored the first point of her collegiate career in the 25-21 set win.
The second set was a tighter battle for the Irish, although they were able to come out on top courtesy of Nunge yet again. The Newburgh, Indiana, native won the set for the Irish, singlehandedly going on a 3-0 run to break a tie with the Vikings and close out the set, 25-22. She finished the match with a career-high 14 kills, topping her previous career-best mark of 10.
After the match, McLaughlin said he considered the second game of the match to be its defining moment.
“When it got tight, we made a couple really good plays and then we served tight,” McLaughlin said. “I think it showed the value of and the importance of our serving.”
The third and final set of the match was highlighted by Cleveland State’s unforced errors, as the Irish cruised to a 25-18 set win to take the match. Fry took advantage of the breakdown in the Vikings’ passing game with her third ace, one of Notre Dame’s eight aces of the match.
Yeadon picked up a double-double in the first game of her college career, finishing the game with 10 kills and 12 digs. McLaughlin said he was impressed with Yeadon’s performance, especially as a freshman.
“I think Jemma, for her first college match did some really good things,” McLaughlin said. “We’re asking an awful lot of her, but I think she can handle it.”
In their final game of the Invitational and second game of the day, the undefeated Irish faced off with Western Michigan. McLaughlin said he told his team to approach the match in the same manner as the others.
“[It was the] same approach,” McLaughlin said. “We’re Notre Dame, and we have to get better. We have to address our weaknesses, we’ve got to fix things, and we’ve got to keep growing emotionally and playing mature volleyball.”
The Irish went on a roll in the first set, taking a commanding 10-point lead at one point before ultimately winning the set, 25-16, behind Plumlee’s five kills. Additionally, Notre Dame’s blocking ability was key against the Broncos (1-2). Fry and Morningstar each made their presence known early on at the net, tallying up five and three blocks during the match, respectively.
The second set was the closest of the weekend for Notre Dame. The Irish had match point with a two-point lead, but the Broncos scored the next two points to extend the set. After a string of points were traded, Yeadon was eventually able to put the set away, 29-27, with a kill. McLaughlin said he was proud of how his team performed under the pressure.
“I’m telling you, it’s no fun,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a grind. But at the end of it we made some plays and pulled it off, so I think you can learn some lessons from that.”
The Irish charged forward in the third and final set, led by Morningstar. Morningstar began placing her tips in hard-to-reach areas of the courts and recorded six kills in the final set alone, including the match-winner. The Irish won the set by a score of 25-16.
McLaughlin said he was pleased with his team’s performance this weekend at the Golden Dome Invitational but is still looking for more.
“For the first weekend, we made some progress, and I think the girls understand we have a lot more to go,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a process. It’s never enough, no matter how good we get. It gets better and better as we go so, yeah, for the first weekend, we did some good stuff and some not so good stuff. We’ve just gotta keep getting better.
“It’s just part of learning the lessons we have to learn. Passing tests that we have to pass to become the team that we want to become. You know, we’re trying every day to form an identity, and I think we took a step forward [this weekend].”
The Irish will next see action in the Shamrock Invitational, which is set to take place Friday and Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.