Irish finish 6th in ACC as injuries increase down stretch
Hayden Adams | Friday, May 17, 2019
Fresh off a 2017 season in which they won 22 games and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, the Irish found themselves in a period of transition this season, losing six seniors and adding a new head coach. However, what hurt Notre Dame (16-12, 10-8 ACC) more than anything else, according to head coach Mike Johnson, was the number of injuries sustained as the season progressed.
“If there’s anything that of course couldn’t be foreseen, it was the number of injuries to key positions and key players down the stretch,” Johnson said. “Those were tougher, but I was proud of the way we kept battling and kept competing.”
This season marked Johnson’s first as head coach, taking the mantle from former Irish head coach Jim McLaughlin, who left the team due to health reasons. The Irish went on to win six of their first eight games, and their first eight wins of the season all came as 3-0 sweeps. However, the accumulation of injuries took its toll. They were still competitive all year and were swept only twice, once against No. 12 Michigan and once against eventual ACC-champion No. 14 Pittsburgh. Johnson praised his team on their resilience throughout the year.
“In those final weeks where we were pretty banged up, [but] we competed hard, we fought hard, we maintained our belief in ourselves and we went for it,” Johnson said. “As a program if we can continue to play with that mindset and continue to do that as we progress and get better, I believe the future for this program is very bright.”
In spite of all the injuries the Irish accrued, Johnson saw a silver lining to the difficulties.
“The injuries definitely were [turning points], but in an interesting way I think they could also be a turning point for this program in the long term in a very positive way,” Johnson said. “Down the stretch, we were playing a number of people in different positions. … Then also we relied even more heavily on our young kids to perform well.”
Freshman outside hitter Charley Niego led the Irish with 384.5 points, and right side hitter Sydney Bent, also a freshman, was second with 329.5 points. Freshman setter Zoe Nunez also had a strong debut for the Irish, finishing fourth in the ACC in assists and assists per set. Johnson says he expects great things from Nunez in her career.
“I thought Zoe did a wonderful job. I already think she’s one of the best setters in the ACC, and my goal for her is to be the best setter in the country,” he said. ”A setter really has a leadership capacity to it and she embraced that role, and she did a great job for her freshman year.”
Despite the setbacks the team faced, the Irish still finished sixth in the ACC and led the conference in both opponent hitting percentage and digs for the second-consecutive season. They were also third in blocks per set and fourth in total blocks, even more impressive considering that the team finished only 13th in sets played.
The stellar Irish defense was stabilized by senior libero Ryann DeJarld, who, came off a 2017 season in which she set the program record for digs in a season and was the first Irish player to be named to the All-ACC first team. In 2018, she became Notre Dame’s all-time leader in digs with 2,340 in her career. For her efforts, DeJarld was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the only Irish player to ever win the award. Senior middle blocker Meg Morningstar also had an impact on the defense, finishing fourth in the ACC in both total blocks and blocks per set. Morningstar’s 1.42 block per set mark was good for 16th nationally. Johnson lauded his seniors for the consistency they brought to the team.
“One of the identities of this program has been that our strength has been in our defense,” Johnson said. “Ryann was a very strong defensive player; so was Meg and so was [senior middle blocker] Rebecca [Nunge], and [senior libero] Kelly [Byrne, who] had a good serve that could pressure people and help us defensively as well. So in that regard, each of those guys really held down the defense.”
While the seniors depart this year without making the NCAA tournament, Johnson said that their legacy is still remarkable for how they’ve helped bring the program forward.
“It’s important to remember that this senior class came into a program that was in need of changing,” Johnson said. “And we are certainly a better program than we were four years ago. This team is different than we were four years ago. The challenge going forward is to build upon what those guys did and to take this [further].”