Aug. 11, 1999
Returning five starters from last year’s squad, ninth-year head coach Debbie Brown and the Notre Dame volleyball team will be looking for a more consistent road to its fifth straight BIG EAST championship and eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
Leading this year’s squad will be team captains senior middle blocker Mary Leffers and junior setter Denise Boylan, two of the team’s five returning starters. Other returning regulars include junior Christi Girton and sophomore Marcie Bomhack at the two outside hitter positions and sophomore opposite Kristy Kreher and senior Emily Schiebout, who shared the starting duties at the opposite position in 1998.
The team, however, will have big shoes to fill with the graduation of middle blocker Lindsay Treadwell, who led the team in aces, digs and blocks in 1998. Notre Dame also lost outside hitter Mandi Powell, who will be unable to compete her senior season due to injury.
“Every year going in, I have pretty high expectations of the team and it’s no different this year,” Brown said. “Our young players got a lot of experience last year with only one senior and that should make us stronger for this season.
“I think we have pretty good balance at the positions. It hurts us losing Mandi this year, because we don’t have as much depth at the outside hitter position. All of her skills were very good, but we can overcome that and have a very successful year.”
After dropping the team’s first-ever BIG EAST matches last season, the Irish rallied at the conference tournament, eventually beating top-seeded Georgetown in three games to claim their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
|Junior Denise Boylan|
“Looking back on the 1998 season, I was really pleased with the way the team held together and finished strong,” Brown said. “We obviously had some difficulties to overcome with injuries, especially to Denise (Boylan) and with Mary (Leffers) not being 100 percent.
“I was very pleased with how we performed in the BIG EAST Tournament and in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. I thought we played really well, so from that stand point it was a very good season. Certainly, going into it we had hoped to do a little bit better, but when you have setbacks or injuries, you have to re-evaluate. With what we had, we finished very well.”
Here is a look at the Irish, by position:
Notre Dame finds itself in a much different situation than it was in last year with respect to the outside hitter position.
In 1998, Brown and the Irish were faced with the task of trying to fill the void left by the graduation of two of the program’s best-ever outside hitters, Jaimie Lee and Angie Harris. This year, the team returns both its starting outside hitters in second team all-BIG EAST selection Girton and BIG EAST Tournament MVP Bomhack, who were the team’s leaders in attempts and kills per game.
Girton’s emergence on the left side was one of the team’s keys to success in the last half of the 1998 season. The Muncie, Ind., native led the team in kills in 10 of the last 17 matches and had only one double-double (kills/digs) before tallying eight in the final 14 matches.
“Christi played a lot as a freshman, but she had more of a supporting role then,” Brown said. “Last year, she learned to be a leader and really carry the team at times.”
As a junior, Girton will once again be expected to display her versatility by taking a lot of swings over the course of a match as well as being one of the team’s primary passers.
“A lot of people will serve her, because she’s big,” said Brown of the 6-3 Girton. “People think that if you’re big, you can’t pass, but she has some excellent passing technique, is very strong and can hold her own.”
Bomhack joins Girton as a starter at outside hitter after completing a good freshman season with 247 kills (third best on the team), 194 digs and 75 total blocks. The Waukesha, Wis., native earned BIG EAST All-Rookie team honors and the conference tournament MVP award after reaching double digits in both kills and digs in all three BIG EAST Championship matches. She also was one of just three Notre Dame players to see action in all 31 matches.
This season, the Irish will need Bomhack to continue working on her passing skills and accuracy on the offensive side after posting a .184 hitting percentage in 1998.
“With her front-row play, and maybe it was the freshman syndrome, she was somewhat inconsistent,” Brown said. “I think that when she was on, she was very good, as evidenced in the BIG EAST Tournament and other matches. There would be times though, when she had a hard time getting started and would make more unforced errors than we wanted to see.
“I think that year of experience is going to be critical, because she realizes now what she needs to do to be successful.”
While Girton and Bomhack will see the majority of the time on the outside, they also will be joined by juniors Jo Jameyson and Adrienne Shimmel and freshman Keara Coughlin.
Jameyson once again will enter 1999 as a preliminary candidate at middle blocker, but could also see time at the outside position because of her versatility and solid all-around skills.
Shimmel, at 5-10, will probably see more playing time in the front row after serving as the team’s primary backrow specialist her first two seasons. The Mission Viejo, Calif., product may not be the tallest player at the position but she makes up for it with on-court intensity, decent power, improved blocking and a diverse hitting repertoire.
“Marcie and Christi are our primary starters, but it’s important for us not to overlook Adrienne,” Brown said. “She’s done a great job at developing shots, and I think she realizes that she’s not going to go in and overpower the opponent. She has to be smart and find the weakness in their defense.”
Coughlin, one of three incoming freshmen, also should be in the mix at the outside hitter position after starring at Marian High School in Chicago.
Notre Dame’s middle blocker corps comprises each of the four classes with Leffers, Jameyson, sophomore Malinda Goralski and freshman Kaitlin McEwen.
“I feel very good about our middles,” Brown said. “I think they’re going to push each other and each of them brings something a little bit different to the team.”
Leffers hopes to enjoy the same success as she did two years ago when she was a first team all-BIG EAST and all-district selection. Last season as a junior, Leffers averaged 1.33 blocks per game after recovering from a knee injury suffered during the spring of 1998.
“I give Mary a tremendous amount of credit, because of the determination that she had to rehab and get back and play in matches five months after her surgery,” Brown said.
“Even though she was back playing, she wasn’t 100 percent, but her intensity, her determination and drive were really important to the team. We also had different setters, so not only was she dealing with her own frustration of physically not being able to do everything that she was able to do before her injury, but then she had to get used to a new setter and different lineups.”
Following a solid spring season, Leffers will bring a quicker, stronger attack along with her solid all-around blocking skills that have propelled her into the Irish record books over the past three seasons.
The Tampa, Fla., native also will take on a new role as one of the team’s two captains, filling the shoes of 1999 graduate and fellow middle blocker Treadwell.
“In terms of intensity, Lindsay and Mary, are very much the same,” Brown said. “They go hard themselves and expect the same from their teammates. If Mary or Lindsay sense that someone isn’t playing 100 percent, then they’re going to get on them to pick it up.”
Joining Leffers at middle blocker will be Jameyson, who is probably the best all-around player of the group. The Alvin, Texas native brings tremendous quickness, is a natural blocker and hits particularly well behind the setter while she is in the front row. Jameyson’s back- row skills also are an asset to the team as she brings improved passing and digging abilities.
Last season, Jameyson’s highlights included a 10 block effort in a 3-2 win over Georgia, 16 kills on .433 hitting in three games versus Colorado, and 20 digs against Syracuse.
“Jo is a tremendous athlete and a very dynamic player,” Brown said. “I think the key for us this year is to keep her healthy. If she’s healthy and strong, I know that she will play very well.
“I think this could be the year that she can really step in and play a significant role for us. She’s very versatile and can play any position and that’s something nice to have, but I think her best position is in the middle because of her lateral quickness and good blocking skills.”
One of the team’s biggest surprises this year may be the play of Goralski, who saw action in 14 matches as a freshman in 1998 and worked out hard during the spring season.
“I think the spring was really good for her in terms of getting experience,” Brown said. “I’m not sure if she was ever off the court. She played every opportunity and I think that helped her a lot.”
Goralski’s primary focus last spring was improving her offensive skills, including quickening her arm swing and adjusting her approach to the ball.
At the net, the Missouri City, Texas, native is the team’s best blocker, according to Brown.
“Malinda jumps high, she’s quick and gets her hands on a lot of balls,” says Brown. If we need to give our hitters a challenge in practice, we have them hit against her.
“If you have a good blocker, someone who is going to stuff some balls, those are immediate points. If we’re in a situation where we need to score some quick points and she’s in the front row, we’re going to have an advantage.”
McEwen rounds out the group of middle blockers. Like Goralski, McEwen will undergo a learning-type year as a freshman.
“Our expectation is not that she’s going to come in and make an immediate impact, but we are expecting her to improve a lot,” Brown said. “It may be where she gets to play some, but it’s going to be a learning year for her and she will grow into the position. I’m very excited about her coming. “
McEwen, at 6-2, already has shown good hitting and blocking skills, plus a good work ethic and is eager to learn.
Perhaps one of the team’s biggest improvements last season and biggest threats this year is at the opposite or rightside hitter position. After the departure of four-year starter Jennifer Birkner (1993-96), the opposite position had been a question mark. In 1998, Kreher and Schiebout shared the starting duties, providing the Irish the offensive punch the team needed.
Although Kreher finished the season as the starter at the NCAAs, she and Schiebout will be in competition for the starting slot. The two left-handers both offer similar attributes including quick arm swings, hard spikes, good off-the-net hitting, above normal blocking skills and setting abilities.
Kreher, who came in as perhaps the least heralded of the freshman class, made remarkable strides last season, earning BIG EAST All-Rookie team honors, while leading the Irish to victory in the first round of the NCAAs against Eastern Washington with 24 kills, 14 assists and 14 digs, for her first career triple-double. She also was one of 20 players chosen to the 1999 USA Volleyball Junior National Team, following a tryout in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the end of April.
“Toward the end of year she wasn’t playing like a freshman,” Brown said. “I thought Kristy showed tremendous poise in some difficult situations, and I give her credit for going into situations where she didn’t have a lot of practice.”
Schiebout enjoyed her first injury-free season a year ago by being one of just three Notre Dame players to see action in all 31 matches. Like Kreher, Schiebout has good all-around front-row skills, with the ability to hit hard with authority either cross-court or down the line.
“Emily does a good job of setting the block and reading the hitter well,” Brown said. “With hitting, she’s more of a power than a finesse hitter. She has a high arm reach, a fast arm swing, a good snap and has proven to be a valuable asset.”
Whether Kreher or Schiebout starts, Brown is confident that either can give the team similar results.
“I think they both know their offensive and blocking skills are going to be critical for us,” Brown says. “Because both of them are such strong, all-around players at that position, I know whatever team we’re playing against, I’m going to match them up against their strongest leftside hitter.”
Boylan returns for her third straight year to run the Irish offense after missing 11 matches last season and seeing a limited role in the NCAA Tournament due to injury.
“It’s a situation she’s never been in before, and I think she learned a lot from just watching,” said Brown of Boylan’s injury.
Unlike last year, when the 6-1 Boylan trained all summer with the USA National Team program, for the first time she took a three-month break to work on her strength and conditioning.
A new, stronger Boylan, last year’s preseason BIG EAST Player of the Year, gives the Irish consistent set placement and a tall block. She also will provide more on-court leadership as one of the team’s captains.
The team’s need for a capable backup was made apparent last season when Boylan went down prior to the Boston College match on Oct. 25.
With Lauren Stettin still recovering from offseason surgery, the starting setting duties fell to newcomer Michelle Graham, who had played in just six matches prior to taking over.
“I was most impressed with her poise last season,” Brown said. “She got in there and did her job and because of her poise, the team responded well.”
Graham, who is 5-8, finished the season by averaging 8.77 assists per game but was frequently substituted for in the front row by opposites Kreher and Schiebout to help with the blocking duties.
Stettin provides the Irish with another option at setter. The Burr Ridge, Ill., native spent last season recovering from offseason surgery and has really never had the chance to see any consistent playing time throughout her career.
“Lauren has been relatively injury- free since the spring last year, so we hope she will come in and contribute this year,” Brown said. ” I think she has a very good perspective, because sometimes when you can’t play and have to sit out and watch, you learn a lot. I know that she will be very eager to take advantage of an opportunity to play.”
Notre Dame’s biggest area for improvement in 1999 will be in the back row.
“Last year, our weakness was our passing and ball control defense,” Brown said. “We worked on that this spring and improved a lot.”
The play of backrow or defensive specialists also will take on added importance with the increase in the amount of substitutions allowed per game from 15 to 18.
“The substitution rules are changing again, where we can have up to 18 subs,” Brown said. “I think that will allow us to use a backrow specialist more and not run out of subs during the game. It’s good for the smaller players, or those who don’t have a role in the front row, because they know they can get in the back row.”
Leading Notre Dame’s large contingent of defensive specialists in 1999 is Shimmel, who saw action in all but one match last season mainly as a back-row substitute for Leffers. In addition to good passing and strong defense, Shimmel brings a spark to the team coming off the bench.
“She brings a lot of fire, she talks on the court, and if the team’s struggling, she can go in and change the nature of the game,” Brown said. “We know that once she goes in, she’s going to give you everything that she’s got and that’s a great asset for her.”
Shimmel will be joined by Stettin and newcomers sophomore Sara Tonnies and freshmen Janie Alderete and Coughlin.
“It’s going to be important that we have a strong passing team, so that we can have a balanced offense,” Brown said.
The team’s 1999 schedule is once again filled with a number of challenging preseason tournaments, mid-season non-conference matches. and it will end in California at the University of the Pacific with the Community Bankers Classic, November 26-27.
Following the season-opener with Valparaiso, September 1, the Irish host the four-team Shamrock Invitational, which includes Northwestern, Louisville and preseason top-10 team Pacific. Louisville and Pacific both reached the regional round in last season’s NCAA Tournament, while Northwestern posted wins over Indiana and Ohio State.
This year’s road schedule is highlighted by trips for the first time to South Carolina, Wyoming and Utah. In South Carolina, the Irish will play matches against Kentucky and host Clemson, September 4-5, in the BIG Orange Bash. Two weeks later, Notre Dame travels to Wyoming to face the Cowgirls, followed by a date with Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colo. The Irish return to the Rocky Mountain Region in mid-October for two mid-week matches versus BYU (October 19) and Utah (October 20), both NCAA qualifiers a year ago.
Not to be outdone, Notre Dame also will have a number of challenging non-conference matches at home versus the likes of Miami (Ohio), Michigan and Illinois State.
“We’re starting and ending with strong competition and then in the middle we have the opportunity to play teams that are clearly NCAA caliber,” Brown said. “BYU is traditionally a top 10 program at least, and that’s going to be a great experience for us in October. It’s kind of exciting when you know you’re going to play one of those programs that are perennial top 10 or top 20 programs.”
The BIG EAST
The BIG EAST has continued to improve since the Irish joined the conference in 1995. Last season, the Notre Dame dropped its first two matches ever and were forced to come from behind at the BIG EAST Championships.
In 1999, the Irish once again will receive challenges from teams like Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Connecticut and especially Georgetown, which returns two BIG EAST first-team selections, Kiran Gill and Yulia Vtyurina.
“The top half of the conference will be very competitive this season and any of those teams are capable of beating each other on any given night,” Brown said.