Dec. 1, 1999
By Peggy Curtin
It’s been five years since Denise Boylan made a decision that no ordinary high school sophomore would have been able to make. Boylan, however, was not your typical high school athlete nor is she now, your typical college volleyball setter.
The decision that Boylan made five years ago was to orally commit to play volleyball for head coach Debbie Brown and the University of Notre Dame. A mature decision, considering Boylan would go onto become one of the program’s most highly touted recruits, earning national prep player-of-the-year honors in 1997. Now five years later, it is Boylan’s maturity both on and off the court that has been one of the strong points in leading the Irish to their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999.
“I’ve matured a lot since my freshman year (at Notre Dame),” Boylan said. “I look back and my priorities and goals have changed and things that I once thought were important aren’t anymore. Things I used to set aside have now become priorities, which is a good thing. I’m still sorting a lot of things out, but I’ve come to realize what is really important.”
In her third consecutive season as the team’s starting setter, Boylan has led the Irish to the team’s highest hitting percentage in the program’s 20-year history, a .280 mark, which ranks the team among the nation’s best in that category. The Irish also hit a BIG EAST conference high .359, .113 points higher than it’s nearest competitor, Georgetown, which hit .246. Individually, Boylan has averaged 11.75 assists per game, has a team-best 34 service aces and is fourth on the team in blocks per game (0.84) in helping lead the Irish to tonight’s game in Los Angeles against Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
What the numbers don’t show, however, is how the Irish have struggled at times this season to maintain their consistency and the level of play that Boylan and the rest of the team knows that they are capable of playing.
“It’s frustrating because I know how good our team is and how good we can be,” Boylan says. “But it’s one of those things where you look at the team as a whole and everyone is going through different things at different times. Everyone has had high expectations for the season, but not everything is going to go as well as you hope. I think if you keep working hard, however, you will eventually get to where you want to be.”
Hard work has always been one of Boylan’s strong points. As a freshman, she earned the team’s starting position to become the first Notre Dame freshman to open the season at setter since 1988. From there, she helped direct the team to its third round-of-16 appearance at the NCAA championships in four seasons. She set Notre Dame freshman records for most assists (1,350) and highest assist per game average (12.39), which also ranks third-best in program history. The Lisle, Ill., native also garnered second-team all-district and second-team all-BIG EAST honors, while joining classmate Christi Girton on the BIG EAST all-rookie team.
In 1998 as a sophomore, Boylan was once again poised to lead the team to new heights before an elbow injury, suffered in practice prior to the team’s match with Boston College on October 25, forced her to miss more than a month of the season. She returned in a limited role at the NCAA championships.
“Even though she missed a lot of time last year in terms of experience on the floor, I think it was a learning experience for her to just to sit back, watch and learn from a different perspective,” Brown said.
What perspective Boylan gained off the court last season, she has relayed onto it this season as one of the team’s two captains.
“I’ve always felt like a leader on the floor, basically through my entire career just because of the position that I play,” Boylan said. “This year, I’ve really been challenged to step up my leadership with the whole team. I’ve been more involved in decisions and what’s going on and realizing the impact I can have on the team and the influence I can have over some of the players.”
Boylan’s ability to make others better around her has not gone unnoticed by her teammates or the collegiate volleyball community. Just a few weeks ago, she was named an all-BIG EAST first-team selection, becoming the first Notre Dame setter so honored since 1994. She also has been selected to three all-tournament teams in as many chances and is a strong candidate for all-district honors.
Some of Boylan’s confidence and leadership on the floor can be traced back to her father, Michael, who played basketball at Assumption College and in the American Basketball Association with the Kentucky Colonels.
“Our relationship has grown a lot stronger since I’ve been in college, and I really can’t say enough about him,” Boylan said. “He’s the only person I ever want to talk to after we lose. He’s the only person who knows exactly what needs to be said. He has never once critiqued the way I play and doesn’t go out and say, ‘Oh, you’re the best.’ He’s not one of those dads. He just comes in and gives me complete love and respects me as a person, not just as an athlete.”
The same respect that Boylan gets from her father, can also be echoed by her teammates, which is an indicator of just how far she has come since making the decision to come to Notre Dame five years ago.
“This year, not necessarily physically, but mentally she’s had to be a lot sharper, because she’s one of the captains,” senior co-captain Mary Leffers said. “With communicating, helping with team orientation and running the show, she’s had to make a lot of adjustment and changes. I think it’s definitely been a learning and maturing process for her and her best game is really yet to come.”