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“Hungry” Irish look to make NCAA tournament run after uncertain season

| Monday, April 12, 2021

When the Notre Dame volleyball team returned to campus in August, they didn’t even know if there would be a season. Just over eight months later, the Irish (14-3, 13-3 ACC) find themselves ranked 22nd in the country and returning to the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last four seasons. 

“I said to our team a number of times, it says a lot about the people in this room, that in the hardest year, we have one of our best years, and there’s a reason they call us the Fighting Irish,” head coach Mike Johnson said. 

Conferences around the country postponed or cancelled fall sports, seemingly updating decisions by the minute, although the ACC ultimately made the decision to play.

“There was a period in August, September, where you’re, more than anything, just wondering what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “The things that we could control were our improvement in practice, our effort, our attitude, our enthusiasm and whether or not there was going to be a championship, we knew we were going to show up that day to practice and we could make some progress.”

Typically, the NCAA tournament is held in December, and consists of 64 teams. This year, in addition to being postponed to the spring, the field was trimmed to 48 teams. Johnson sees an opportunity to increase volleyball’s audience.

“This tournament really gives the sport of volleyball an opportunity to be showcased in a different light,” he said. “Normally the volleyball championship is going on the same time as almost the college football playoff and the start of the NBA and the NFL, and Christmas, and a lot of those factors aren’t there (this year).”

Johnson highlighted other positives of the spring tournament as well.

“In every difficulty lies some opportunity,” he said. “I look at perhaps our seniors who really love the game and love to compete, and they would have been done in December. And yet, here they are in April, still wearing Notre Dame across their chest, and so we’re just grateful for the opportunities to compete.”

The Irish will take on Army (6-2, 4-2 Patriot League) in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday, and should they advance, they will take on No. 16 Oregon in the next round. The top sixteen teams in the tournament all secured first round byes.

“I like where we are, if we’re fortunate enough to beat Army, to go into [the Oregon game] with a little momentum,” Johnson said. “I think it could work to our advantage.” 

The Black Knights, who came into the Patriot League conference tournament seeded third, pulled off two upsets in a row to secure the conference’s automatic bid.

“We talk about Notre Dame being different with the demands here, athletic, academic, personal, but I also got to think at Army, those kids experience some pretty exceptional demands,” Johnson said. “They handle the ball pretty well. They’ve got a good setter, they’ve got some good arms, And I think they’ll come to play.”

Notre Dame has struggled recently in the NCAA tournament. The last time the Irish advanced past the first round was 2005; since then, they have lost their opening game in five consecutive tournaments. However, this Irish team has experience, featuring seven upperclassmen and could be primed for a run. Additionally, six Irish players earned All-ACC honors this year. Junior setter Zoe Nunez and junior outside hitter Charley Niego were named First Team All-Conference for the second straight year, while sophomore outside hitter Caroline Meuth and freshman middle blocker Lindsey Miller were named to Second Team All-Conference, announced on April 5. Outside hitter Aubrey Hamilton and libero Hattie Monson joined Miller on the All-Freshman team. 

“We’ve got a group of players who are hungry, players who have been in the tournament and in the fire before, and are really kind of looking at this matchup not so much as happy to be here, but more ‘let’s go make a run,’” Johnson said. “This team has a swagger and a confidence about them, that they’re ready to go do it.”

The Irish have been playing some of their best volleyball of the season as of late, having won five of their last six contests.

“One thing I appreciate about this team is if you look through the season, we’ve won the different matches in very different ways. We’ve won some with very strong offensive performances, and others with very strong defensive performances,” Johnson said. “The magic to me is really putting that all together and doing it all at once for a string of matches.”  

The first set against Army is scheduled for noon on Wednesday in Omaha, Neb. and will be broadcast on ESPN 3. If the Irish advance, they will face Oregon the following day at noon. 

After all the uncertainty of the season, Johnson and his team are simply grateful to be where they are. “When we get down there, at the end of the day, there are four white lines and a net and we’re gonna compete like heck.”

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