With Purdue looming, Irish sweep Valparaiso
Aidan Thomas | Friday, September 6, 2019
Even though Notre Dame has four sophomores and two freshmen in its starting lineup, Irish head coach Mike Johnson is not about to use his team’s youth as an excuse to lower expectations.
“[Notre Dame] has a standard,” Johnson said. “It is a place that prides itself upon excellence. I keep hearing that we have a young team, and I’m not interested in that. The standard is the standard, and these kids are going to grow up in a hurry.”
Certainly, the Irish’s youth didn’t seem to slow them down in a crisp 3-0 (25-23, 25-17, 25-23) victory over the Valparaiso Crusaders on Wednesday night. Freshman outside hitter Caroline Meuth led the team with 11 kills and also contributed 15 digs. Freshman libero Kiara Schmidt, who entered the game with 19 digs in 3 games, racked up 20 in the match, giving her 39 digs on the season. Notre Dame’s core group of sophomores were also major factors, with Sydney Bent, Charley Niego and Lauren Wenzel accounting for 22 of the home team’s 72 digs on the night. Meanwhile Baer came up with several momentum changing plays, chipping in six kills to go with three blocks.
The Crusaders are coming off a 27-win season in which they reached the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. Out of the gate, they looked to be a little sharper than Notre Dame, claiming the first three points of the match before the Irish got their feet under them. However, trailing 6-7 in the first set, the Irish flipped a switch, erupting for a 13-6 run.
After tying the score on a Valparaiso error, Baer and sophomore Zoe Nunez rose up for a decisive block at the net, giving the Irish their first lead of the match. With crisp passing, thanks largely to Nunez (43 assists), and aggressive defense, the Irish steadily increased their lead. Outside of freshman Kara Cooper, Valparaiso couldn’t muster much offense in the spurt.
“I thought we passed the ball a little bit better today,” Johnson said. “I thought our backward defense applied heavier pressure today, which I liked.”
Up 16-13, Notre Dame ripped off three straight points to complete their run, with Bent rising up for a huge kill before Baer recorded a block and kill on back-to-back points to open up a game-high 6-point lead. Up 22-16, the Irish watched the Crusaders storm back with five straight points to close within a single point. Johnson called timeout, which seemed to settle the Irish. They returned with poise, eventually closing out the Crusaders on a Wenzel kill. Johnson expressed his confidence in his team’s ability to buckle down and secure the victory.
“I think as our team matures, we learn to play point-to-point really regardless of the score,” Johnson said. “The message at that point is no different than the message at any other point. It’s about what we have to do to make a play.”
Set two featured a seesaw affair, with Valparaiso threatening to pull away at several points, but Notre Dame hung tough. Finally, down 14-12, the Irish rallied for ten straight points, essentially putting away the set. Bent tied the score at 14 with a strong cross-court kill.
Following that, Wenzel came up with a huge block to give Notre Dame the lead, and, on the ensuing point, an outstanding dig from Meuth, who served throughout the 10-0 run, kept the point alive and allowed for yet another Irish winner. The Crusaders called timeout but Notre Dame continued with six more points for a 22-14 lead. Valparaiso would close within six points but never truly threatened the Irish in the 25-17 defeat.
On Saturday, the Irish took a 2-0 lead against Bowling Green before struggling through a lethargic third set and eventually claiming a four-set victory. They had no such struggles in closing out Valparaiso despite a valiant effort from the Crusaders. Again, the visitors often threatened to pull away, but Notre Dame staved off any major runs, never trailing by more than two points. Down 15-17, the Irish ripped off one more decisive run, a 6-0 spurt spurred by several overpowering kills, to put themselves in control.
Meuth provided a jolt for the Irish, coming up with consecutive kills to even the score, paving the way for Bent’s powerful kill on the next point to give the Irish the lead for good. After a Valparaiso error, Junior libero Madison Cruzado made her mark, laying out at the back end of the floor for an outstanding one-handed dig that would lead to another Meuth kill. Wenzel finished off the authoritative run with a strong kill on the next point, giving the Irish a 21-17 lead.
They would lead 24-20, giving themselves four chances to close out the Crusaders for good. They needed all four points. Valparaiso grabbed three straight points to close within a point once more, prompting Johnson to again call a pivotal timeout. The Irish returned to the floor and played a clean point, culminating in Niego’s match-clinching kill. Johnson again praised his team’s ability to respond to a little bit of adversity and secure the win.
“When you have a lead, you just make a play. I was proud that we responded when it got tough,” Johnson said.
The Irish improve to 3-1 with a huge home matchup against No.18 Purdue coming up on Friday.