Notre Dame volleyball’s head coach Salima Rockwell came onto campus with a rocky start. The Irish opened up the season 0-2 against Texas Tech and Mississippi State before winning in the fifth set against Milwaukee. The Irish then traveled to the Long Beach State Tournament where they also went 0-2 on the weekend. This would be the start of a nine-game road streak.
Since the Long Beach State Tournament, however, the Irish have shifted their luck. The Irish went 1-4 for the first five games of the season, and 4-1 in the latter five.
“I think at first it was a lot of experiments, we were just trying to figure out a good lineup,” Rockwell said. “What was going to work for us? What combination of players can execute best on the court? But, you know, the big thing we talked about in our gym is minimizing errors, and then just trying to maximize what we do well. And I think that’s probably our biggest area of growth is getting better at little things, eliminating some of those errors that maybe we were doing early on. We’re not seeing quite as much right now.”
The Irish have gotten cleaner in their game. In the first two games of the season, the Irish had 67 kills to their opponent’s 102. In the most recent two games, the margin is 89-77 in favor of the Irish.
“Not to be cheesy but whether you win or not, you want to just play better and better with every match every weekend. And that’s what we did,” Rockwell said. “It was fun to see our upside get a little higher, and we know where we could be if we sustain a level of execution and play. So we’re definitely gonna use that momentum going into this weekend to kind of continue to build on what we’ve already got.”
A major component in the shift of the team’s dynamic was the Irish finally meshing and becoming comfortable with one another. In addition to a brand new coaching staff, the Irish welcomed six freshmen onto the team, including outside hitter Avery Ross, as well as three graduate student transfers. With the influx of new members, there is always a transition time needed. However, with the new players, there were returning ones willing to put in the work to guarantee a successful season.
“It definitely had its ups and downs for sure, playing with all new people around you is definitely something you need to get used to and it definitely puts you back into your freshman state,” junior libero Hattie Monson said. “As the weeks have gone on, especially the grad players and the core seven of us who have stayed, we’ve done a really good job of helping the freshman stay comfortable. As the weeks go on, it’s great to see their progress as they are trusting us more and more and just everyone trusting each other.”
The Irish squad will need to be trusting in one another as they look toward their packed schedule ahead of them. Notre Dame starts off their ACC run on Friday against Florida State. Though the Seminoles aren’t ranked, they have an 8-3-0 record.
Additionally, the ACC is not an easy conference for volleyball as three teams are ranked in the NCAA top 15: Louisville (2), Pittsburgh (10) and Georgia Tech (13).
While the Irish are surely getting more comfortable with each other, they still need to perform well for anything to count. In the ACC, the Irish are ranked last in kills per set, and 13th in opponent’s kills per set.
While the team stats are not as good as they would have hoped, there are multiple Irish players ranked with impressive stats. Junior middle blocker Lauren Tarnoff is currently ranked fourth in the ACC for hitting percentage, followed by graduate student middle blocker Kaylyn Winkler at 8th with .364.
On the defensive side, Monson is ranked second in the ACC with 4.43 digs per set.
“Hattie Monson. I wouldn’t trade her for any libero in the country,” Rockwell said. “She’s a bright spot. In the gym, she’s a joy to be around. And she’s tough as nails. And that’s that combination. You don’t get that every day and it’s so fun to be able to push her; she wants to be pushed. She wants to be better. And she challenges herself every day.”
With Florida State on the horizon and the daunting task of playing No. 13 Georgia Tech in the near future, Rockwell and the Irish squad will be working hard to prepare for conference play.
“One game at a time and one foot in front of the other,” Rockwell said.
The Irish open up conference play on the road in Tallahassee, Fla. Notre Dame will play Florida State on Sept. 23 starting at 6:30 p.m. EDT.