Irish volleyball’s hot start doesn’t translate
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, May 15, 2020
In his second season at the helm of the Notre Dame women’s volleyball program, head coach Mike Johnson led his squad to an overall record of 19-10, capping off a strong regular season with a coveted appearance in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. The Irish were led by sophomores Charley Niego and Zoe Nunez, both of whom received honorable mention selections to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-East Coast Region Team at the conclusion of the 2019 season.
Niego — an outside hitter — got the nod for the second year in a row, leading her team with a total of 472 points behind a team-best 410 kills and 326 digs. Named a captain at the start of her second season, the Chicago native has proven an integral part of the Notre Dame team for the entirety of her tenure on its roster. Nunez, a setter, had an equally important presence on the front lines for the Irish, amassing 1,219 assists on the season for an average of 10.6 assists per set. Niego and Nunez were also both named All-ACC First Team.
The Irish had a similar reliance on young talent across the floor, with freshman and San Antonio native Caroline Meuth recording the next highest team point total with 415.5. Sophomore Sydney Bent, who, like Niego and Nunez, had a statement season in her inaugural year, also proved a force to be reckoned with, picking up 389.5 points.
Meuth and Bent joined Niego and Nunez in racking up ACC honors, both being named Second Team All-ACC honorees. Meuth was also named as part of the ACC’s All-Freshman Team.
Defensively, graduate student middle blocker Kristin Baer and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Wenzel shouldered the majority of the Irish load, averaging 1.03 and .85 blocks per game, respectively.
Notre Dame started the season off on a high note, winning seven of their first nine games, including a 3-2 victory over then-No. 18 Purdue in Purcell Pavilion. After splitting a series with Michigan with a 3-2 win at home and 1-3 loss on the road, the Irish won six straight to improve to a record of 13-3.
Among the season-opening tear, Notre Dame won six ACC matchups to tie the 2016 team for the program’s best start to conference play at 6-0. The win streak included two straight-set wins over conference foes North Caroline and NC State, both of which took place at home. In the remaining four ACC victories of the streak, Notre Dame held opponents to just one set win, beating Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Duke all by a score of 3-1.
The Irish hit a snag in mid-October with a matchup against then-No. 23 Louisville, suffering a close 3-2 loss which gave way to a rocky conclusion to the season. For the remainder of the year, Notre Dame couldn’t quite regain its footing, unable to win more than two in a row and winning just six of the following 11 games. The skid featured two straight-set losses as the Irish fell 3-0 to then-No. 3 Pitt at the end of October and again to Louisville at the end of November.
Despite the falter down the stretch, Notre Dame’s early season success was enough to secure an NCAA berth, the program’s 20th appearance in the tournament in its history. The Irish were joined by conference-mates Pitt, Florida State and Louisville as one of four teams to represent the ACC in the 64-team tournament.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame faced UCLA in Madison, Wisconsin, as part of the Madison regional. Having lost to the Bruins in all three of the previous meetings between the two programs, the trend continued in 2019 and the Irish fell in straight sets, 25-16, 25-19 and 25-20. With the loss, the Irish closed the season 19-10 overall, 12-6 in conference, 12-3 at home and 6-5 on the road.
Looking ahead to next season, Notre Dame will lose four players — two seniors and two graduate students — with the most notable among them being Baer. They’ll be replaced by an equal number of incoming freshmen, who together combine to make a recruiting class which is ranked 10th nationally. The group features three PrepVolleyball.com High School All-Americans: outside hitter Aubrey Hamilton, middle blocker Lindsey Miller and libero Hattie Monson. The group is joined by Charity McDowell, a middle blocker and 2019 Indiana All-State honoree.