In the world of collegiate sports, the most promising seasons often can be impacted by unforeseen injuries and a challenging season-long schedule. Such was the case for the Notre Dame volleyball team, which returned all six starters and nine of 10 players from last season’s 27-7 team but ended up seeing its depth and experience tested throughout a hard-luck 1996 campaign.
Notre Dame wrapped up an injury-plagued season by turning in one of its most inspired efforts of the year before falling in five games to 12th-ranked Ohio State in second-round action of the NCAA tournament, held Dec. 8 at the Joyce Center. Notre Dame won the first two games before watching the Buckeyes come back to snatch away the victory.
The Irish concluded the season 22-12, after claiming their second consecutive BIG EAST regular-season and tournament titles, and advanced to the NCAAs for the fifth straight season and sixth time in the last nine years. Notre Dame extended its record vs. BIG EAST opponents to 26-0, since joining the conference last season, a dominanace that includes winning 78 of 83 individual games vs. BIG EAST teams during the past two seasons.
A trio of starters–junior setter Carey May, junior outside hitter Angie Harris and senior middle blocker Jennifer Rouse–combined to miss 44 matches due to their respective injuries, with each missing 11 or more contests. May missed the first 14 matches of the season due to a shoulder injury and then sat out two late matches with an injured finger. Harris was bothered by nagging injuries in both of her knees, sitting out six matches through the first few weeks of the season before missing the final 11 outings after undergoing surgery Nov. 8. Rouse also missed the final 11 matches, after dislocating her thumb in practice Nov. 4.
“Losing each of those starters for such long periods of time posed a significant challenge to our team and affected the offensive rhythm,” says sixth-year head coach Debbie Brown. “But we had several players who stepped up throughout the season.”
The Irish rose above their setbacks, led by BIG EAST player of the year and all-district performer Jaimie Lee. The 5-11 junior filled in for May at setter during the first half of the season–despite minimal experience at the position–and then returned to her natural outside hitter position, where she led the Irish with 3.8 kills per game over the final 20 matches.
The devastating effect of the injuries resulted in the starting lineup playing just one full match together during the 34-match campaign. That promising and potent starting lineup included senior rightside hitter Jenny Birkner and freshman middle blocker Mary Leffers, in addition to Lee and the three injured players. In particular, Birkner, Leffers, Lee and Harris had the makings for one of the most formidable hitting foursomes in Notre Dame volleyball history but the quartet never was able to hit its stride amidst the ongoing injury woes.
May’s value was readily evident in the team’s hitting efficiency. In 18 matches with May at setter, the Irish recorded a .261 hitting percentage, compared to hitting just .209 when May was on the bench.
Notre Dame’s challenging non-conference schedule featured eight matches vs. nationally-ranked teams and a total of 11 vs. teams that were selected for the 1996 NCAA tournament. The Irish faced two of the teams competing in the NCAA semifinals–Hawaii and Stanford–and were one of just a handful of teams to win a game from NCAA quarterfinalist Penn State during the ’96 season (the Lions nearly advanced to the NCAA semis before losing to Nebraska, 20-18 in game five).
Nine of Notre Dame’s 12 losses came vs. nationally-ranked teams, with two others vs. teams that made the 1996 NCAA Tournament and the final defeat coming vs. a Ball State team that received heavy consideration for postseason play. Of the nine ranked teams that the Irish faced in ’96, seven were ranked among the top-12 (the most faced by the Irish in one season during the 1990’s).
Birkner–who joined Lee as a first team all-BIG EAST and a repeat all-district selection–capped an amazing career in which she became the only Irish player ever to appear in every game of her four-year career (140). The two-year captain also became the first Notre Dame player to appear in every game in a season (logging all 119 in ’96) and played in 150 consecutive games to close her career. She finished as the only player in the Irish career top 10 for kills, hitting percentage, digs, blocks, aces and assists.
Despite the frustrating and injury-plagued season, Harris broke her own Notre Dame record by averaging 0.67 aces per game and was leading the nation in that category before being lost for the season with her knee surgery. Harris also became the quickest Notre Dame player ever to reach the 1,000-kill plateau, hitting the milestone in the 80th match of her career to best the previous mark by six matches.
In addition to Birkner and Rouse, the Irish next season will be without the services of senior hitters Jen Briggs and Kristina Ervin. Briggs ranked third on the ’96 Irish with 2.6 kills per game, while Ervin served as one of the team’s top backrow players, averaging 2.2 digs per game. All told, the Irish will lose 43 percent of their kills, 43 percent of their digs, 36 percent of their blocks and 33 percent of their aces with the departure of the senior foursome.
“This year’s seniors have meant a tremendous amount to our program and we will miss them in so many ways next year. If Angie can come back healthy, we will return a very solid nucleus and anticipate adding another solid recruiting class,” says Brown, whose squad will return 11 players in 1997, including five with significant starting experience.
“The returning players will benefit from the many challenges they faced and the lessons they learned from this season. Sometimes there are things that you can’t control, but I was very impressed with how the players handled every hurdle that confronted them this season.”