Notre Dame volleyball faces stiff test against Arizona, Texas
Aidan Thomas | Thursday, September 9, 2021
The Notre Dame volleyball team took part in the Shamrock Invitational this past weekend with some tough results, and the road does not get easier. The Irish will don their away jerseys for the first time and head to Austin, Texas for two games. Notre Dame opens the road trip by battling Arizona on Saturday and then No. 1 Texas on Sunday. The Wildcats sit at 5-1 on the season, while the Longhorns have dropped just one set en route to a 5-0 start.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is off to a 2-4 start, after going 2-1 at the Golden Dome Invitational but racking up three consecutive losses at the Shamrock Invitational. The Irish won just two of the 11 sets played all weekend. After a blowout sweep at the hands of Bowling Green, the Irish battled Cincinnati to a 34-32 first set loss, eventually losing the battle 3-1. They fell behind 2-0 and lost 3-1 to UW Milwaukee in the Invitational finale. They’ll need to be vastly improved to compete against a pair of very strong opponents this weekend.
Arizona has had a pair of interesting weekends to open their season. They swept their way through the home tournament, winning all nine sets in the Cactus Classic. Last weekend, the Wildcats were tested on the road, playing three five-set clashes. They emerged victorious in the later two to move to 5-1 on the season. Jaelyn Hodge is the key cog in the Arizona lineup, notching 98 kills in just six matches.
But she’s not the only weapon, as the Irish will have to deal with the highly efficient Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Merle Weidt. Both have played every set and boast attack percentages of .442 and .413 respectively. Emery Herman does most of the setting work at the net, recording 8.83 assists/set in the 2021 season. Hodge, Diaz, and Herman are also defensive forces, but it is Kamaile Hiapo that leads the squad with 95 digs so far. Weidt leads the team with 22 blocks.
Against a strong Arizona defense, Notre Dame will need to be more efficient offensively than they’ve been. The Irish have accumulated just a .216 hit percentage. Senior outside hitter Charley Niego has been a weapon for several years in the Irish lineup, but despite 70 kills, she’s converted just .212 of her opportunities. Sophomore outside hitter Aubrey Hamilton leads the team with 74 kills, but she too is converting at a low rate – .219. The Irish need a little bit more from their outside hitters if they are to keep things close with the Wildcats.
Niego will be an X-Factor defensively as well, as she is second on the team in digs. Senior setter Zoe Nunez will be responsible for facilitating the offense and giving Niego and Hamilton prime kill opportunities. But defensively, she joins Niego and sophomore libero Hattie Monson as the team’s top performers. They’ll need to be on point to give the Irish chances against the big-hitting Wildcats on Saturday.
The Sunday matinee brings a fearsome opponent in the Longhorns. Setter Jhenna Gabriel averages over nine assists per set, and the Longhorns feature a quartet of fantastic finishers at the net. Skylar Fields leads the team with 58 kills, but Asjia O’Neal, Brionne Butler and Molly Phillips have 27, 25, and 32 kills respectively. With the lowest attack percentage among them at .267, the Longhorns are an efficient crew and incredibly difficult to defend against. And scoring on the Longhorns is not an easy feat either. Texas opponents are averaging under 13 points per set. Logan Eggleston and Nalani Iosia are the primary culprits on the floor, combining for 104 digs in those first six games. At the net, O’Neal, Eggleston, Butler, and Philips have terrorized opponents, racking up 56 blocks between the four of them. They’ve averaged 2.44 blocks per set as a unit.
For Notre Dame, defending at the net is going to be key. The Longhorns are versatile offensively and have a proven ability to finish pretty much anywhere at the net. Relying on a bevy of digs against Texas’s lethal offense is not a recipe for success. However, sophomore middle blockers Lindsey Miller and Lauren Tarnoff, along with junior outside hitter Caroline Meuth, have been solid defensively, each collecting at least 18 blocks so far this season. If they can give Texas some trouble at the net, it could give the Irish a chance to make some defensive stands and get the Longhorns off rhythm. Beating the top team in the nation isn’t an easy task, but there are avenues for the Irish to pull off the unthinkable.
It’s been a tough start to the season for the Irish, but their veteran roster, combined with some exciting young talent, is going to gel sooner or later. This weekend, with some premier competition awaiting them, would be a fantastic time for that to happen.