Aug. 30, 2016

By John Heisler

Don’t misunderstand.

As pleased as second-year University of Notre Dame volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin was with his team’s trio of consecutive victories-all via three-set sweeps-last weekend to open the 2016 campaign, he couldn’t be found late Saturday night carving out extra room in the Irish volleyball trophy cases.

And there was no confetti flying out of the window of his Joyce Center office.

Count on perspective from McLaughlin, who knows a thing or two about trophies because he’s seen a thing or two in that regard-having led the Washington women’s team to an NCAA crown in 2005 after doing the same with the USC men in 1989-90.

For starters, McLaughlin liked the fact his team responded to its share of adversity, even in winning those nine straight sets:

–In the first set versus Seton Hall, the Irish trailed six times, the last at 20-19, before winning three straight points and ultimately claiming the set 25-23.

–Notre Dame trailed early in the first two sets against Cleveland State (3-0 and 4-1, respectively), then rebounded to win 25-21 and 25-22, respectively.

–In the first set against Western Michigan, the Irish went on a 16-4 run after falling behind 6-4. In the second set, Notre Dame trailed 17-16 and again at 26-25 before winning four of the last five points to take the set 29-17. After trailing 7-5 in the third set, Notre Dame went on a 10-1 run and won the set 25-16.

“We’ve made progress,” says McLaughlin. “At this point we passed one test, and we’ve got lots more tests along the way. That’s where you find out. You can’t just take the test – at some point you have to pass the test. The best thing about the first weekend is that it makes training more meaningful. It’s the emotion and the understanding of how you have to do it on game day.”

Notre Dame’s sweep of Seton Hall rang as noteworthy because that’s the same Pirate unit that swept the Irish in three straight sets about this time last fall. It suggests that the white boards–full of statistics and motivational sayings and in constant view at practices and in McLaughlin’s office-are beginning to become second nature to the Irish players.

“There’s some familiarity now-that’s what I think about. We know the kids better, they know us better,” says McLaughlin. “You get a little bit of a return, and there’s a little higher buy-in. That’s what’s happening right now. Then you start to understand you can go harder. This team can get what it wants if we just get the work done–it isn’t magic. At some point you become more consistent based on your discipline and focus. I’ve challenged the heck out of them.”

One successful weekend doesn’t equate to a successful season-yet the numbers proved hard to ignore:

*Best start since the 2011 Irish began 3-0.

*First time since 2012 Notre Dame swept three straight matches.

*First time since 2007 the Irish swept three straight at the Joyce Center (within the same season).

Throw in Notre Dame’s sweep against Clemson to close the 2015 home season-and it’s the first time since 2005 (the Irish were 30-4 that year) Notre Dame has claimed four matches in a row at home, all in three straight sets.

“The kids know this is hard, but along the way you’ve got to grab on to the joy in the moment-you’ve got to smell the roses a little bit,” McLaughlin adds. “To get a little return on the work and the gratification, you’ve gotta embrace it. The reality is that we’ve made progress, but let’s keep going, we’ve got a heck of a long ways to go. The challenges and tests will get bigger, but we’re going to get bigger and better, too.

“We’re going to be good enough at some point. We have to embrace the expectations. Everybody has expectations at the start of the year. But as you improve you start to validate some of those expectations. Then you get a better feeling about yourself as far as confidence. This is a place where we should be great -it’s no fun if you’re not. It’s fun when you win. You want them to learn these lessons in a successful environment.

“Now I think our kids understand that we’re starting to meet some of these standards with a little more regularity. You’ve gotta be good before you’re great. Then if you start to meet those standards with great regularity then you can do it anywhere. The challenge isn’t the ACC, it’s Notre Dame volleyball and we control that. We’ve got to get the best of Notre Dame volleyball. We’re starting to go for longer periods of time now with better energy and better focus. Right now we have eight people touching over 10 feet-last year we had one. The physical elements are coming together. I think they are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The 2016 Irish roster returned essentially everyone from a year ago-and the first weekend featured major contributions from newcomers Caroline Holt (a Loyola of Chicago transfer who earned Golden Dome Invitational MVP honors) and freshman outside hitter Jemma Yeadon.

Junior Sam Fry (she accounted for 25 kills in the three matches combined), who like Holt and Yeadon made the all-tournament team last weekend, likes her team’s approach to date:

“The biggest change I’ve noticed is how hard we work when we get in the gym. Our record last fall was not good, and so we were determined during the spring. Everyone worked at getting the job done and getting better individually.

“This weekend was good for us – we did not play our best, but it was a good confidence booster. There was way more focus, and more people were vocal on the court. We stress having a better focus and intensity and that showed.

“Last season we didn’t know what to expect. Our coaches push us and we’re responding and we want to be pushed. We know what he expects from us.

“It’s definitely a way better feeling than it has been. And we know we can play so much better.”

As much as anything else, McLaughlin likes the way his team has taken to the challenges ahead:

“We’re not going through it now where we’re peeking around the corner. We’re really going. We’re committing. We’re gonna fall down, but we’re gonna get up and keep plowing. We just have to maintain this, and we’ll wake up some day and be where we want to be.”

By Sunday McLaughlin was back looking at video in anticipation of this weekend’s Shamrock Invitational that features 24th-rated Purdue (2-1), plus two teams, Coastal Carolina (3-0) and Howard (3-0).

Pardon the Irish players and coaches if they neglected to set off firecrackers after their blue-chip opening weekend.

They’ve got work to do.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler writes about the Notre Dame athletics scene for Fighting Irish Media.