The Notre Dame volleyball team opened their season this weekend with two consecutive losses. Their season opener against Texas Tech on Friday saw the Irish fall 3-1 before another loss, this time 3-0 against Mississippi State, the next day. However, the Irish then battled it out on Sunday against Milwaukee, where head coach Salima Rockwell scored her first Irish win.
Even though the Irish ended up losing to Texas Tech, the squad of fresh faces still had something to be proud of. Freshman outside hitter Avery Ross led the Irish with 13 kills. Graduate student transfer middle blocker Kaylyn Winkler also notched six kills in her first game for the Irish. However, the fresh squad did not come out hard enough out of the gates, and the Irish trailed for most of the first set against the Raiders. Eventually, the Raiders were able to go on a 6-3 run to secure their 25-16 win in the first set.
The second set started off with a 4-1 Irish lead. The Irish were able to maintain their lead the entire set. While the Raiders fought back — at one point narrowing the score to within one point — the Irish ultimately secured their first set win of the season (25-18).
The luck of the Irish would not follow through the rest of the match. While the third match would see an even play from both the Irish and the Raiders, at one point even being tied 11-11, the Raiders eventually took the win, 25-17.
The fourth match saw a similar fate. Although the Irish were able to stay with Texas Tech for the first half of the match, the Raiders eventually secured a substantial lead, winning the Irish out 25-19.
Only a day later, the Irish fell 3-0 to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs came out hot on the Irish and within the first set they had a 10-point lead on the Irish. However, the Irish did not give up, and after a 13-5 run they brought the score within two. The Bulldogs eventually won, 19-25.
The Irish did not allow the Bulldogs to start up again with their previous run. Rather, the teams stayed equal for the first set of points. The Irish at first appeared to be evenly matched. But this would quickly be disproven as the Bulldogs went on to an 11-point run. They won the second match 25-16.
Again, the Irish started up the third set with even scoring, keeping it relatively tied up until the 10-10 mark. But the Bulldogs were able to go on two final runs, confirming their victory with a 25-18 final score.
It wasn’t until the third game of the weekend that the Irish finally found their groove. The first set started out with a Milwaukee point, but the Irish never allowed the Panthers to gain too much of a lead. Eventually, the Irish took the lead, 8-7. Although the Irish were in the lead for a majority of the set, the Panthers were never more than two points behind. This was until the Panthers gained the upper hand and took a 23-22 lead. The Panthers secured the win, 25-23.
The second set started out in a similar vein to the first. The Irish started out with the first point of the set, but just like the last one, the Panthers proved to be tough competition. For every point one team scored, the other followed suit quickly after. The Panthers then pulled their lead to 6-3, before the Irish filled the gap on a kill from freshman outside hitter Lucy Trump.
However, the closed gap would quickly disappear as the Panthers went on an 8-1 run. This time, it was freshman setter Harmony Sample with a kill to stop Milwaukee. Quickly after, the Irish were able to close the gap and take the lead. Eventually, Notre Dame brought their lead to 18-23. Junior libero Hattie Monson was able to bring the Irish to 24, but it was Trump who delivered the set-winning kill. While the Panthers out-blocked the Irish 4-1, the Irish secured 15 to nine kills and had a .174 hit percentage compared to the Panthers’ .064.
Again, this set saw equal talent between the two teams. Especially during the first half of the match, there was never a major lead on either side of the court. With an 11-11 tied set, the Irish eventually secured the lead, but not for long, as the Panthers quickly shifted it 12-12. The lead would continue to tie back and forth until a sneaky tip from sophomore setter Phyona Schrader, which tied it once again at 20-20. Eventually, Winkler delivered the set-winning point and the Irish finished 25-23.
Set four again saw no clear lead off the bat. This was until the Irish went on a run for a 5-9 score, before the Panthers again returned the favor and took the lead back. The Panthers were then able to take control and push their lead by three, maintaining this small gap for a majority of the set. With the Irish having match-winning power, nerves were high, and an Irish error eventually allowed the Panthers to win 24-22 and move to a fifth and final set. The energy was palpable.
“That’s what I live for,” said Rockwell. “I live for fifth sets. I just said, ‘These are the moments, this is why you play. This is why you come here and this is why you play volleyball. So let’s just run this and put our foot on the gas and get after it. Let’s be the aggressor in this and see if we can come out and jump on it right away.’”
And that is exactly what the Irish did. Freshman libero Maisie Alexander opened up the set with an ace, before the Irish would go on a 7-0 run. While the Panthers were able to score twice, a chance for a run was destroyed by a kill by Trump.
Eventually, the Panthers were able to tighten the score 9-7, and Notre Dame called a timeout to try and ice Milwaukee. This appeared to work, as the next point went to the Irish after the Panthers’ serve went out of bounds. The Panthers were able to get the score to 13-14, but the Irish were determined to get a home win. Finally, the Irish won the set 15-13, and the match 3-2.
“I learned that my team knows how to battle, they can find ways to win,” said Rockwell post-match. “We learned that we got some subs and we can be real strategic with what we are doing.”
The team certainly proved their coach right; Trump led the Irish with 23 kills, followed by Ross with 18 and then Schrader and Winkler with 11 each. Monson led the Irish digs with 26 in total.
Many of the lead point scorers were freshmen or transfers, and while at first this was intimidating to Rockwell, after seeing her team together, this worry vanished.
“The way we approach recruiting is not just about them as athletes, but them as people,” she said. “So it’s really important that when they come on visits, it feels right that it’s comfortable for the girls and that they fit in. So the culture is incredible.”
Rockwell cites this as one of the reasons her team was successful today.
“They love each other, they want to play for one another and they play hard,” Rockwell said.
The Irish now face a doubleheader in California against Long Beach State and Boise State. While the team is up for the challenge, there is a week of preparation ahead of them.
“When you schedule tough in the non-conference, you learn more about yourself,” Rockwell said. “We’re gonna start really digging into the film this weekend.”
Even Rockwell is excited about the prospect of two intense road games.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to play Boise State and Long Beach State, both really good teams,” Rockwell said. “I’m just excited to go to California too!”
The Irish are back on the road next weekend for the 2022 Long Beach State Tournament, where they play Boise State on Sept. 2 at 10 p.m., followed by Long Beach State on Sept. 3 at 10 p.m. Live stats will be available on the Notre Dame website.