Notre Dame set to begin ACC slate against Louisville
R.J. Stempak | Friday, September 23, 2016
Just one year ago, the Irish were sitting at 5-7, had a new head coach and an unforgiving ACC season to look forward to. Notre Dame would only earn two more wins throughout the remainder of the season, and finished 7-25.
But as Notre Dame looks to the beginning of 2016 ACC play, it has already surpassed the win totals of its last two seasons with a record of 9-3. The reversal of fortunes is due in no small part to the leadership of head coach Jim McLaughlin, who views the difference between his first and second season with the program as night and day.
“Everything is different,” McLaughlin said. “In the first year, you’re a little bit of an unknown, the second year you are more familiar and the kids know [the staff] better and the staff knows the kids better. We have a higher understanding of what it takes and a better understanding of what to do and how to do it. The investment this year is much higher. The team is comprehending things at a higher level and now we need the experience of getting it done and we are learning how to do that.”
Notre Dame hopes to continue the trend of improvement and changing the culture of the team this Friday against Louisville. Last year, the Cardinals (5-5) swept the Irish on the opening night of conference play. McLaughlin hopes to take what he learned about the ACC last year and bring it to opening night this year.
“The ACC has 15 teams, so it’s hard to be equitable in a conference when you have that many teams, so you got to treat each team equally,” McLaughlin said. “The ACC is growing, we got the leadership, we got good schools and [Notre Dame] is going to make the conference stronger. We are going to get a lot of challenges, and if we can meet our standards with great regularity here, we can do it anywhere.”
Freshman outside hitter Melanie McHenry leads Louisville with 126 kills. McHenry, a multi-sport athlete in high school who served as the football team’s kicker for four years, also leads the team in service aces.
For the Irish, fortunes have turned as individual players have demonstrated growth, resulting in a stronger overall team. And while every player has gained experience and shown improvement, McLaughlin has noticed the improvement of sophomore Ryann DeJarld, sophomore Rebecca Nunge and senior Katie Higgins as a reason that the team has achieved a new level of success.
“Everyone is improving and everyone has a different pace of learning,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been impressed with everyone. Rebecca Nunge has improved and learned how to do it on game day, Katie Higgins is hitting the ball as well as anybody in the conference, Meg Morningstar and Sam Fry have been getting better. Ryann [DeJarld] has had glimpses of being one of the top passers that I have ever coached. She’s just got to do it over a period of time now.”
In their second game of the weekend, the Irish play Miami (Fla.), who defeated the Irish 3-1 last season. The Hurricanes (6-6) come into the weekend with one win in their last three outings. Miami head coach Jose “Keno” Gandara has worked extensively with Notre Dame head coach Jim McLaughlin, most recently for eight years at Washington where Gandara served as an assistant for McLaughlin.
“I coached [Gandara] on the USA team, I know him really well and I coached with him in Washington,” McLaughlin said. “So there are some philosophies that are going to be the same. I know [Miami] will be well-coached and disciplined, and he’s got some good players so they will be a handful. We are looking forward to the challenge.”
On the court, the Hurricanes are led by a duo of skilled hitters, junior Olga Strantzali and sophomore Anna Haak, who have each notched over 120 kills on the year. In the setting department, junior Alyssa Basdavanos assists her hitters at a high rate, contributing 9.04 assists per match so far this season.
The Irish have strengths in serving and passing that McLaughlin believes will help them throughout the year.
“We are getting better at controlling the ball,” McLaughlin said. “The serve and pass and attacking specifically are areas you have to be good at. The one stat that I have carried with me forever is that if we win the serve and pass, we win 80 percent of our games, regardless. And if you can win those two areas and the left-side battle you are going to win every game.”
Notre Dame faces off against Louisville this Friday at 7 p.m. at the Joyce Center. The Irish will then travel to the James L. Knight Sports Complex in Coral Gables, Florida, to meet the Hurricanes on Sunday at 11 a.m.