Aug. 20, 2005
By Bo Rottenborn
The 25th varsity season for the University of Notre Dame’s volleyball program was one of extremes, as the Irish experienced some historic victories, peppered by noteworthy defeats. In the end, the result was a season that, on the whole, continued the tradition of success established since head coach Debbie Brown stepped onto campus in 1991.
Though the season was a meandering one, Notre Dame finished with a 21-9 record, its 14th consecutive winning campaign and sixth in a row (plus 13th in the last 14) with 20+ victories. The Irish went 9-1 in BIG EAST Conference action, claiming their ninth regular-season title in 10 years since becoming a league member. Notre Dame then dropped a single game en route to winning its eighth BIG EAST tournament championship, whereby guaranteeing a 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA Championship. The Irish then reached the round of 32 in the national tournament for the 10th time in 13 seasons.
Individually, junior Lauren Brewster continued her development into one of the top middle blockers in the country. After leading the nation in blocking – as well as being tops in the BIG EAST in both that category and hitting percentage – in 2003, she became a more all-around defensive standout in her third collegiate season, finishing as one of just two players in Division I to average over 1.50 blocks (1.54) and over 1.50 digs (2.18) per game. Brewster was three times the BIG EAST Player of the Week before being tabbed first-team all-conference for the second straight year (as one of just two unanimous selections). She then was the BIG EAST tournament MVP, an AVCA all-region pick, and a third-team AVCA All-American. Brewster became the first Notre Dame player ever to be named to one of the AVCA’s All-America teams, as well as the first Tennessee native – at any four-year college (Divisions I, II, III and NAIA) – ever to be tabbed an AVCA All-American.
One of Brewster’s classmates, team captain and libero Meg Henican, also had an exceptional season defensively. She broke the Notre Dame records for both digs in a season (553) and season dig average (4.94), while combining with freshman opposite Adrianna Stasiuk for 884 digs, the most-ever (by one dig) by Irish teammates in a season. Henican also set an ND record for digs in any-length match, scrambling for 37 in four games against Seton Hall on Oct. 10, and also for digs in an NCAA-tournament contest (27 in the first round vs. Valparaiso).
After being ranked 25th in the preseason AVCA poll, the Irish started 1-3. The first two defeats came against #2 Nebraska in the Joyce Center on back-to-back nights. The second of that series nearly saw Notre Dame claim its highest-ranked victory in school history – in the first start for freshman setter Ashley Tarutis – as the Irish won two of the first three games before losing in five (15-10 in the fifth). Just three days later, Notre Dame was shocked by Valparaiso, which snapped an 18-match losing streak (dating back to 1981) against the Irish with a five-game victory (15-12 in the fifth).
Notre Dame reversed its fortunes with a four-match winning streak, first finally prevailing in a 3-2 match (vs. Fresno State) en route to winning the Cal Poly Invitational and then notching a four-game triumph against rival Michigan State – ND’s first win vs. the Spartans since 1994 – in the Gamecock Invitational. But two days later (the Irish had a match against USC cancelled when the Women of Troy elected not to make the cross-country trip due to an impending hurricane) South Carolina derailed Notre Dame for the second straight year, winning 3-1 in front of a national television audience on College Sports Television. Upon returning to action, the Irish fell in four games in a televised match once again, losing at Michigan. Standing 5-5 to open the month of October, Brown made a lineup change, moving senior Emily Loomis from middle blocker to her former position of outside hitter and inserting junior Carolyn Cooper into a starting role. That proved to be a turning point in the campaign, as that starting lineup – Brewster and Cooper in the middle, Loomis and junior Lauren Kelbley on the outside, Stasiuk at opposite, Tarutis setting, and Henican in the libero – went 15-2 together. The hot play began as the curtain rose on the BIG EAST season, as the Irish would win 21 of 23 games en route to victories in their first seven league contests.
Emily Loomis – who finished her career fifth on the all-time Irish list for career kills (1,321) – turned in the best match of her career in the regular-season finale, slamming 29 kills on .414 hitting to lead Notre Dame to its first-ever victory against Long Beach State and its third in as many matches against teams that would earn at-large bids to the NCAAs.
Notre Dame stepped out of BIG EAST play in mid-October, first for a home match with traditional rival Illinois State. As has been the custom when the Irish and Redbirds hook up, the match was a classic, ending with a five-game ND triumph that was punctuated by 25.5 Irish blocks and a pair of triple-doubles. Brewster (17 kills, 13 digs, 11 blocks) and Stasiuk (14 kills, 11 digs, 11 blocks) became the first Irish players to record triple-doubles in nearly six years.
Notre Dame traveled to the state of Utah for fall break and put together one of its finest performances of the season. Behind 18 kills on .567 hitting from Brewster, the Irish dominated 14th-ranked Utah, winning easily in three games to snap the Utes’ school-record 12-match winning streak and hand them their first home defeat in more than a year. That triumph was short-lived, though, as one day later the TV curse struck again, when Brigham Young prevailed in a five-game affair in Provo.
After four more wins, a nagging foot injury to Kelbley forced her to sit out, and the Irish were stunned on their home court, suffering their first home conference defeat in regular-season play in 14 years (and first since joining the BIG EAST). It came in three games against Boston College, a school that had previously won just one game in 31 vs. Notre Dame.
Suddenly in a three-way tie (with Pittsburgh and Syracuse) atop the league standings, the Irish rebounded the next weekend with a pair of 3-0 wins to claim the outright BIG EAST title. The first came against the Panthers, avenging 2003 defeats that denied ND an outright regular-season championship and the BIG EAST tournament title, in front of 4,773 fans in the Joyce Center (the second-largest volleyball crowd in facility history). Following a five-game loss against Northern Iowa (again without Kelbley), Notre Dame went to Pittsburgh for the BIG EAST tournament, first gaining revenge against Boston College in the semifinals before shutting out the hosts in the championship match.
The Thanksgiving weekend saw the Irish reach a new height, first sweeping a UC Irvine team that would earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament and then fighting to a five-game triumph against tourney host Long Beach State for ND’s first-ever victory against the 49ers. Loomis was the catalyst in that match, slamming a career-high 29 kills on .414 hitting, as the Irish rallied from a 14-12 final-game deficit with four straight points for victory, their third in a row against an at-large NCAA team.
Despite being 15th in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and having won 15 of its last 18, Notre Dame was sent on the road for the first two rounds of the NCAAs, to 14th-seeded Wisconsin. In the opening round, the Irish avenged a regular-season loss for the second time, defeating Valparaiso in four games. One day later, Notre Dame came out quickly vs. the host Badgers, going up by as many as six (including 29-23) in the first game. But Wisconsin held tough and saved 10 game points en route to a 36-34 win that springboarded the Badgers to a triumph.
The Irish were the first outright BIG EAST champion ever to be shut out of the conference’s major awards, but Kelbley (second team) and Loomis (honorable mention) did join Brewster in earning all-league mention for the third straight year. The senior finished her career fifth on ND’s all-time kills list (1,321), as well as second in percentage of games played (96.1%, 420-437), third in matches with 10+ kills (72), and in the top 10 in five other categories.
Notre Dame was among the top five in the nation in team blocking for the fourth consecutive year, ranking fourth (3.37 per game). Additionally, the Irish finished 17th in Division I in attendance (16,639 total; 1,513 per match), their third straight top-25 listing.