Sept. 14, 2015
Two weeks ago, at a 7 a.m. practice for the University of Notre Dame volleyball team, Fighting Irish head coach Jim McLaughlin didn’t feel that his players were quite “there,” in terms of meeting the gold standard McLaughlin has established to guide the Irish.
Sam Fry, a 6-foot sophomore outside hitter/middle blocker for the Irish, also noticed that the Irish weren’t totally invested in the early-morning practice and immediately went up to McLaughlin’s office.
“Sam was in my office with tears in her eyes, saying, ‘That will never happen again,'” McLaughlin recalled. “She’s an unreal kid. Her work ethic is amazing. She’ll do everything we ask her to do, and then she’ll do more. We really appreciate people like that.”
Fry has emerged as a caring and committed leader for the Irish, who showed major strides of improvement this past weekend by defeating Mississippi State and Eastern Kentucky and then waging a competitive match against two-time defending national champion Penn State.
The Cincinnati, Ohio native was at the forefront of the big weekend for the program, as she led the team in kills (33) and blocks (14). For the year she leads her team in kills (108), kills per set (3.09) and points (131.0) and is second in blocks (30).
“I think it’s huge for the younger players to step up,” said McLaughlin, whose team only has one senior and two juniors. “Sam, I think she’s one of the kids who can have the biggest impact on the team, not just in her ability to play, but in her ability to lead and set the example in all ways.
“She’s a very tough kid,” McLaughlin continued about Fry. “I am going to hold her to a very high standard, and I’ve held her to a very high standard and pushed her. I’ve asked her to switch positions, which is something that is really tough and, yet she comes off and says, ‘I appreciate you pushing me.’ Some kids, a position change would bother them.”
A preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection after earning all-ACC freshman team honors in 2014, Fry embraced the opportunity to help the Irish despite the challenges.
“It was definitely difficult, the transition to outside,” Fry said. “The first few tournaments when I played outside, it was rough. You have to be a quick learner, and another key thing is to have grit and that winning mentality and being really aggressive. I think I’ve learned to be that way since I’ve started playing volleyball. It has to be your mindset and your passion.”
McLaughlin has helped Fry and the Irish forge the mindset of a champion. Every day when the Irish come to practice, the word toughness glares at them from a whiteboard set up on the Irish practice court.
“I heard coaches say, ‘We have to be tough, we have to be tougher,'” McLaughlin said. “I always wondered what that meant. To me, toughness is hitting your serve when your serve is needed. Toughness is being in the right place at the right time, and the ability to stay focused on the things that tell you what to do. Toughness is taking a great swing when it’s on the line. We talk about toughness a lot, these intangibles.”
Sophomore setter Maddie Dilfer said Fry has exceptional volleyball skills and versatility. Fry has made a major impact on the Irish front row with her talent and competitiveness. Dilfer loves the way Fry can turn a tough situation into a point on the scoreboard for the Irish.
“Sam takes bad sets and makes them look good,” the Irish co-captain said. “That’s what’s so special about Sam. A couple of my slides to her today were not good sets, but she turned them into kills. That’s something important she does for this team. She does a great job with good sets, too, but she can do anything with it all.”
Dilfer said Fry’s willingness to do what it takes for the team, including a position change, has set a prime example for the Irish and allowed Fry to emerge as a leader.
“I think it takes a level of maturity, but it can be developed early if you work on it,” Dilfer said of a young team shaping leaders for future success. “We’re a very young team. As freshmen and sophomores, we’ve had to step up and be leaders in our own way. It takes a willingness to go out of your comfort zone and say, ‘Okay, I’m only a sophomore, but I need to help lead this team and help us be the best team that we can be.’
“Our whole thing is, ‘All in, every play, every day,'” Dilfer said. “If we didn’t have everyone buying in, just like Sam is, it wouldn’t work.”
Fry is ready to step up to whatever challenge the Irish have for her.
“I’ll do anything for the girls on the team, and anything for Coach McLaughlin,” Fry said. “There’s a sense of trust with my teammates and my coaches. I know Coach trusts me, so I’ll work hard and do anything. I played outside at the beginning of the year and then moved to the middle this weekend. I’m trying to work hard to adjust quickly to those positions, so I can be a leader for the team and have good games, so the other girls can set their standards high, too.
“Taking on a leadership role is challenging, because I have a shy personality,” Fry said. “It’s hard for me to become more vocal on the court, but I’m really working on that. One thing I want to do that helps balance out my quiet persona is leading by example. I want to try working on being louder and having good games, so I can lead by example.”
McLaughlin sees Fry playing a vital role in Irish leadership.
“I believe leadership is an acquired ability and an acquired skill,” McLaughlin said. “Some people are leaders on the court, some are leaders in the classroom and in the locker room. We all have to be leaders.
“Sam has an ability to set an example in terms of her ability to work and play. If you look at her on a continuum in terms of personality, she has a great personality, yet she’s pretty reserved, but she has an intensity, a determination that you have to have. She’s learning how to persevere at this level.”
As Fry combines an understanding of the game with developing leadership skills, McLaughlin loves the drive and competitive edge she brings to the Irish.
“The thing I like the most about her is that she has a big heart,” McLaughlin said. “The heart keeps you determined.
“On Friday, I got on her at crunch time. She hit a ball out of bounds against Mississippi State, and we lost game two. Then, in the next two games, and we set her, she was hitting clean. She was very good. She hit her shot and trusted it.
“I just think the ceiling is the limit for her, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface with her.”
–by Curt Rallo, special correspondent