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The Four-Year Evolution of Notre Dame Volleyball

Dec. 1, 2017

By Jane Horvat ‘18

NOTRE DAME, Ind.  If at the close of the 2014 season, someone in the the collegiate volleyball community were to have predicted that the University of Notre Dame’s volleyball program would make a run at the NCAA Championship in the fall of 2017, many would have been skeptical. The Fighting Irish had finished the 2014 season with an overall record of 6-23 and a conference record of 3-15.

The only people who believed in the team’s ability to turn itself around were the freshmen of that 2014 team who wanted more from their collegiate volleyball careers.

Senior defensive specialist Natalie Johnson and her classmates showed a determination early on to lead their team out of the disappointment of the 2014 season and towards future success.

“One of the early days in preseason we sat down together,” explained Johnson. “We said, ‘I know we’re struggling now, but we’re going to be the ones that are going to turn this around. We have to keep working and keep pushing through no matter what because we can be the ones who lead this team.’ We’ve always had our minds set on getting to the tournament and turning the program around.”

The student-athletes had the right attitude moving forward, but it wasn’t until Notre Dame announced in January 2015 that Jim McLaughlin would take over as the new head coach of the program that Johnson and her teammates’ goals seemed to become more attainable.

McLaughlin, the only person to coach both a women’s and a men’s volleyball team to NCAA titles and a former women’s volleyball national coach of the year at the University of Washington, brought a welcome change in mentality and intensity to the Irish locker room. His 25 years of previous NCAA coaching experience and his belief that Notre Dame volleyball could become a top-tier program made it easy for players to buy into his system of teaching.

When he was hired, McLaughlin made his intentions clear.

“We are going to create a winning culture and make the program competitive again. … I can’t wait to get to work so that we can help return Notre Dame volleyball to being a program that competes at the highest level,” he said.

The 2015 season was one of transition for the Irish. As happens when a new coach comes into a program, the team had to adjust to a new training system, higher expectations and a level of accountability they had not experienced thus far at the collegiate level. While their record remained similar to the previous year (7-25, 2-18 in ACC play), the underlying foundation of the team began to transform into the core of mindfulness and focus that would set up the program for its future success.

The players bought into McLaughlin’s system of mindfulness because he invested in them from the moment he arrived at Notre Dame.

“It was a hard transition but also an easy transition,” said Johnson. “I wanted to play for someone that expected great things from me and that’s what Jim did from day one.”

On paper, the outcome of that 2015 season didn’t prove to the fans or the rest of the volleyball community how much improvement the Irish had made, but when the Irish added junior transfer Caroline Holt, a setter from the University of Loyola-Chicago, to the roster, the pieces began to fall into place.

After a standout sophomore year with the Ramblers in which she played in 118 sets and totaled 49 kills (.392 assist percentage), 1,009 assists, 29 service aces, 203 digs and 25 blocks, Holt earned second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors. Holt then made the decision to join the Irish squad for her final two years of NCAA eligibility.

“The future of Notre Dame volleyball was really enticing, as was the coaching staff,” Holt said of her decision to transfer. “We have all the resources in the world here to have the best volleyball life and the best academic life. That’s what really sealed the deal.”

On a squad that boasted junior middle blocker Sam Fry, a recipient of All-ACC Freshman Team honors in 2014 and All-ACC Second Team honors in 2015, sophomore libero Ryann DeJarld, sophomore outside hitter Rebecca Nunge and the incoming freshman outside hitter Jemma Yeadon, who was a 2015 Under Armour second-team All-American her senior year of high school, Holt was the final piece of the puzzle for the Irish as they moved into the 2016 season.

Junior captains Holt, Fry, and Johnson lead the Notre Dame team to early success as the season began. The Irish got hot quickly as they kicked off the year with a 10-1 record in ACC play. With Yeadon making an offensive splash in her freshman season, leading the Irish in kills with an average of 2.94 per set, points with 377 (3.49 per set), and total kills with 318, and DeJarld leading the defense with 572 digs (third all-time in program history for digs in a season), the team was set up to finally achieve the success they had been working towards.

Unfortunately, it was just as everything began to come together that Notre Dame’s 2016 playoff hopes fell apart. In the final week of October 2016, the Irish were 22 games into the season when Holt broke her foot, suffering a season-ending injury.

The Irish did their best they could to adjust, switching players into positions in which they were not used to competing in response to the loss of their starting setter, but the team couldn’t recover their momentum as additional players succumbed to injury. Notre Dame went 4-6 after losing Holt to injury to finish with a record of 22-10 for the season.

While this winning record showed a crucial change in the direction of the program and an indication of the future to come, the players were not happy with the outcome of their season. In a year where Fry, DeJarld and Holt, despite her injury, earned second-team All-ACC honors, not to mention Yeadon being named to the All-ACC Freshman Team, the Irish were still dissatisfied.

“It was frustrating,” recalled Johnson. “But I think that injury, that adjustment and that adversity helped us learn that we can accomplish anything and that we have to keep fighting through. We also learned different lessons about what it takes to win and how hard winning can be.”

Holt agreed with her teammate and co-captain as she thought back to the circumstances of the 2016 season.

“It was really unfortunate for everyone,” she said.”I felt like I had let down the team, but I think everyone found a new role and tried to fight through adversity. It’s a lesson we can learn from even this year.”

That is exactly what the Irish did. The 2017 season saw the healthy return of Holt as well as the return of key players on the Notre Dame squad. Now seniors, the Notre Dame volleyball class of 2018 boasts six members who have worked for three years to turn the program around. Along with captains Fry, Johnson and Holt, senior outside hitters Sydney Kuhn and Maddie Plumlee and setter Taylor Zwickl add four years of experience and leadership to the Irish squad.

The team jumped out to a 10-1 start in non-conference play to begin the season and went undefeated in its early-season tournaments to take home three first-place tournament finishes in the Golden Dome Invitational, the BGSU/Toledo Invitational, and the Shamrock Invitational. The Irish picked up big wins over two ranked Big Ten teams during the stretch, defeating No. 24 Ohio State and No. 23 Michigan State in back-to-back matches.

Defensively, Notre Dame has shined in 2017 as Ryann DeJarld ranks fourth in the NCAA and first in the ACC in average digs per set with 6.14 while Johnson leads the ACC in service aces (.42 avg per set). DeJarld set the Notre Dame program record for digs in a career, currently with 1,792 digs (731 this season) and has become the first Notre Dame volleyball player to earn first-team All-ACC honors, since joining the league for the 2013 season.

On the offensive side, Yeadon leads the Notre Dame team in kills with 442 thus far in the season, which ranks fourth in the ACC. Nunge, Kuhn and Fry have all recorded over 200 kills as well in 2017. Fry has notched the 10th-best blocks per set average in the NCAA (third in the ACC) with 1.36 and earned second-team All-ACC honors for the third consecutive year along with teammate Yeadon.

When the regular season came to its close, the Fighting Irish awaited the NCAA Volleyball Selection Show with a 22-9 record, great momentum should they move to the postseason and the hope that they had officially turned the Notre Dame volleyball program in the right direction. The women found out on Sunday, Nov. 26, that the team received its first NCAA Championship bid since 2012 and would take on Western Kentucky at 5 p.m. ET Friday in Lexington, Kentucky.

In reflecting on this opportunity to make a postseason run, Johnson and Holt do not think the team underwent any large change from one season to the next since McLaughlin’s arrival.

“We train the same. We run the same systems. If anything, we’ve matured more and learned how to prepare better for games. Our mentality is more in preparation in training than before,” said Holt.

“It’s just taking one game at a time, one point at a time, one contact at a time because you can’t control what happens in the long term but you can control how you react to certain things in the present time,” Johnson agreed. “It’s the small things we focus on every day that contribute to the goal of making the NCAA tournament.”

The Irish have continued their training this week as they prepare for their first round match against Western Kentucky. The women have rallied around their six seniors as they head to the tournament while staying focused on the philosophies McLaughlin has instilled in them over the past three seasons. He has always instructed his players to focus on their mental preparation and to have a strong and determined mentality as they train.

In addition to the improvement of her team’s mental game, Holt has noticed a sense of urgency in herself and her teammates as they move into tournament play. With the NCAA Championship using single-elimination rules, even one loss would derail Notre Dame’s postseason hopes.

“We all want to fight for the seniors this year because this is our last go-around,” Holt said.”For us to make it to the tournament is obviously really special and a testament to our legacy.”

For Johnson, her team’s renewed energy and fight during this week’s practice is the culmination of her desires for the volleyball program. In her four years with Notre Dame volleyball, she has had the opportunity to rebuild a program from the ground up.

“When I first considered Notre Dame, I saw a program with a lot of opportunity ahead of itself, and I thought that I could make an impact and be one of the people that could help Notre Dame become a volleyball school,” Johnson explained.

Johnson, Holt and the rest of the Notre Dame volleyball team plan to put up a fight as they enter the tournament this Friday. They aim to be the first of many Irish volleyball teams that elevate the University’s program to a new level.

— ND —

Jane Horvat is a student intern for Fighting Irish Media. In addition to working with hockey, volleyball and football, she contributes to the writing team and is an English and Romance Languages major. A member of the Glynn Family Honors Program, Horvat writes for the online art database See Art Differently and hails from Rockford, Illinois.