Sept. 23, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The non-conference portion of the 2014 schedule did not go according to plan for head coach Debbie Brown and the University of Notre Dame volleyball team. After losing 2012 honorable mention All-American / senior outside hitter Toni Alugbue to a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in the pre-season, the Irish were forced to add one more question mark to a lengthy list of them that already included trying to fill holes left by graduation at setter and libero.
Notre Dame turned to youth to answer some of those key question marks as freshmen started immediately and inexperienced sophomores and a junior stepped into starting roles. As the season got underway, growing pains occurred and occurred often. There was the pretty good – an intense three-set loss to open the season at No. 12 Minnesota where the Irish held set point in each of the first two frames before ultimately falling late each time. There was the bad – frustrating 3-1 losses to Washington State and TCU at home where the Irish won set one only to drop the final three frames. And then there were the ugly – 3-0 sweeps to mid-majors IUPUI and Western Michigan at home while senior outside hitter Nicole Smith (81 kills, 38 digs, 19 blocks) sat out with an ankle injury.
However, eleven matches into the season and entering Atlantic Coast Conference action this weekend at Miami (7-4) and No. 6 Florida State (11-0), the Irish appear to have finally righted the ship a bit. After starting out 0-6, the program has won three of its last five matches, with one of the losses coming to No. 11 Purdue in front of 7,000 fans at a rowdy and hot Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
“We have statistically made some progress,” says Brown. “We were weak offensively at the beginning of the year, but we have done a nice job of developing the offense, generating kills and getting into a better flow.”
And the numbers back up Brown. In the first five matches, the Irish hit .125 and averaged just 11.44 kills per set. Assists were at 10.56 per set, while Notre Dame only tallied 0.69 service aces per set. In the six matches since, Notre Dame is attacking at a .233 clip and averages 12.96 kills, 12.00 assists and 1.21 service aces per set.
During the recent run, Notre Dame has leaned heavily on underclassmen, as five freshmen and sophomore Katie Higgins have seen plenty of playing time. In addition, senior All-American Jeni Houser has raised her hitting percentage from .189 in the first five matches to .311 in the last six and her kills per set average from 2.00 to 3.21.
Among the freshmen, three have emerged as regular starters, while two others have seen their playing time increase over the last couple of weeks.
Fry, who is sixth in the ACC in blocks per set (1.31), has thrived in the middle for the Irish, as she sits first on the team in solo blocks (7), block assists (44) and total blocks and is also second in kills, tied for third in service aces (6) and fourth in kills per set (2.15). The Cincinnati, Ohio native made a big splash during her first collegiate match at Minnesota, as she totaled a match-high nine blocks against the talented and athletic Golden Gopher squad.
“Sam has really good instincts for the game and is a great competitor,” says Brown. “She looks across the net and figures out how to stop someone. She is smart and is a good athlete. Sam has really good lateral mobility, so she is able to close blocks. She just doesn’t give up.”
Kuhn didn’t play much during the season’s opening weekend, but broke out in a big way with an impressive 14-kill effort in Notre Dame’s home opener against Washington State. The kill total was the most by an Irish freshman since Houser had 17 in 2011. Since then, the Wichita, Kan., product has been one of Notre Dame’s most steady players, as she is second in digs (75), third in digs per set (2.03), kills per set (2.19) and kills (tied w/ 81).
“Sydney has been so steady and her passing is really, really good,” says Brown. “That’s been a really nice boost for us, as she has stepped up and taken a lot of the passing load for us and is doing so with such consistency. She is also an efficient hitter. She may not lead us in kills, but she isn’t going to make a lot of mistakes and that’s huge for us.”
Johnson has come right in and shown great potential at the libero position, as the Pasadena, Calif., native has notched double-digit totals in digs in eight matches, including a season-high 16 against Washington State. She also has proved adept at serving (team-high eight service aces) and setting (third on team w/ 31 assists).
“Natalie is going to keep getting better and better as she adjusts to the speed of the game,” says Brown. “Her passing technique is really good. I have a lot of confidence in her passing.”
Elsewhere, freshman setter Maddie Dilfer has played the back row, while junior Hanna Muzzonigro has entered for the front row rotations. Dilfer is second on the team in assists (166), assists per set (5.19), digs per set (2.28) and service aces (7) and is also third in digs (73), while Muzzonigro is first in assists (214) and assists per set (5.35) and is also second in blocks (25) and fourth in blocks per set (0.62).
“Maddie is learning how to best use our hitters and how to be a leader as a setter,” says Brown. “That’s tough as a freshman to be that vocal, but I think she is adjusting.”
While not a freshman, Higgins has also been a huge boost to the Irish lineup after playing in just five matches a year ago. After a freshman campaign that featured a lot of learning, the Kearney, Neb., native has worked her way into a starting middle spot the last five matches and displayed great consistency at the net. Since entering the starting lineup, Higgins leads the team in hitting percentage (.348) and is second in blocks (13).
A big positive for Brown during the non-conference slate is that the team has had the opportunity to try different lineup and different offensive systems while playing a challenging schedule that featured three top-15 Big Ten foes.
“Our team is evolving as a group and slowly overcoming the loss of Toni,” says Brown. “We are seeing who is able to pick up the slack.”
While some of the positives of the early season have been noted already, certainly Brown is eager to keep working in the gym, as 3-8 is not the record that her -nor the team – expected or will stand for.
“Every aspect of the game we need to work on,” says Brown. “We think we have been serving pretty well, but I think we could serve tougher. Against Purdue we did a great job of serving tough, keeping them out of system and preventing them from always having three options. However, we didn’t always convert on those chances. We want to work on being able to get a team out of system and then be able to convert by making a strong block or a dig and then a counter attack.
“We’ve had matches where we have done different areas well. However, an area where we may have been hurt the most was side-out percentage. It was consistently pretty low. We need to get it above 60% and heading towards 65-70% to give us a better chance of winning sets.”
With the non-conference schedule – and that disappointing record – in the rear-view mirror, the Irish can now turn their sights towards a tough ACC slate that starts this weekend against a talented Miami squad and a national power in Florida State.
A renewed excitement surrounds the team as conference play begins, with several team goals still floating around ready to be grabbed.
“We know the ACC is a new chapter and we are excited,” says Brown. “The winning percentage is not anywhere near what we wanted, but we also know the level of competition we have played will prepare us well. We have definitely raised our game and are in a pretty good place going into ACC play. We are taking the season one match at a time. That’s all we can do right now.”
–Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director