Aug. 5, 2002
There are some things that don’t change in the University of Notre Dame volleyball program from year to year. One of the most consistent teams in the nation, the Irish qualified for their 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2001 and spent much of the season ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation.
Leading the team through all 10 NCAA Tournament appearances has been head coach Debbie Brown, who enters her 12th season with the Irish. Brown has 276 wins as the mentor of the Irish program and the team has won six BIG EAST Conference championships under her leadership.
Brown’s fellow conference coaches do not expect many changes in 2002, as the Irish were picked to repeat their conference title this season. Notre Dame received 10 of a possible 14 first-place votes.
Notre Dame does return four of its starters from last season (junior middle blocker Kim Fletcher, junior setter Kristen Kinder, senior defensive specialist Keara Coughlin and sophomore outside hitter Emily Loomis), but an influx of six talented freshmen and a sophomore class with a season of experience could give the Irish a vastly different look in 2002.
“There is more competition at every spot this year,” Brown says about her squad that will begin workouts on August 9.
“Last year we had three players who had been starters for several years (middle blocker Malinda Goralski, outside hitter Marcie Bomhack and opposite Kristy Kreher). I feel that there is not a position that will not be contested this year. Our depth is going to be very good and we will be versatile with several players who can play different positions. Our depth and the competitive level, the way we are going to push each other in the gym, is going to be very good.”
There is a sense around the Notre Dame volleyball program that while outside observers hold the same expectations for the team, the Irish are pushing themselves to an even higher level. Over the last two seasons, entrenched starters like Denise Boylan, Christi Girton, Marcie Bomhack, Kristy Kreher and Malinda Goralski have graduated. An influx of young talent (three new players in 2001, six new players in 2002) have changed the face of the Notre Dame volleyball team.
In addition to personnel changes, the look of women’s collegiate volleyball has undergone a face lift over the last two seasons. Rally scoring, with games going to 30 instead of 15, was introduced in 2001. The 2002 season will be remembered for the inclusion of the libero.
A defensive and passing specialist, the libero position enables a coach to freely substitute for a front-row player when that player rotates to the back row. The libero does not have to report to the official like traditional substitutions, but simply runs onto the court (outfitted with a distinct color uniform contrary to her teammates) to take her spot.
Brown is excited about the new position because her 2002 Irish team has three talented players ready to step in at libero.
“The libero automatically elevates our ball control,” Brown says.
“We would hope that our passing will become very steady. Our defense should be better, considering you have someone you feel is your best defensive player on the court for six rotations rather than three. I am looking forward to it and the libero will help our team for sure.”
The three defensive specialists returning in 2002 as candidates for the libero position are senior tri-captain Janie Alderete, senior tri-captain Keara Coughlin and junior Christa Moen.
“All three of them have worked hard on their passing technique and have become very good passers,” Brown says.
“Defensively all three of them are very good and can play all of the three back court positions. Our ball control and defense is significantly better when they are in there. The three of them will see considerable playing time and the libero position is really up for grabs among all three of them.”
While all three defensive specialists look forward to the increased playing time that the libero provides, the new position does force the Irish coaches to make a key choice. The libero is not allowed to serve. Alderete was second on the team in aces last season (30), while Moen had 14.
The improved passing and ball control that the libero provides is music to 2001 BIG EAST Setter of the Year Kristen Kinder’s ears. A all-regional selection last season and ’02 preseason all-BIG EAST pick, Kinder is poised for her second season as Notre Dame’s starting setter. K. Kinder played in all 103 games last season, amassing 1,215 assists and developing into one of the best all-around players on the Irish roster with 100 kills (sixth on the team), a .240 hitting percentage (fifth), 38 aces (first), 242 digs (first) and 56 blocks (tied for fifth).
“I do not think there is another setter in the country as quick as Kristen,” Brown says.
The 2001 BIG EAST Setter of the Year, Kristen Kinder returns as a junior this season to lead the Irish offense.
“She just gets to everything. She matured greatly last year in terms of her choices and location and is just a really hard worker.”
K. Kinder, the third Irish tri-captain in 2002, was the only dedicated setter on the Notre Dame roster last season, forcing Moen into a back-up setter role. The addition of freshman setter Kelly Burrell has allowed Moen to concentrate on her defense and passing while adding to the competitiveness of the Irish workouts.
“Kelly and Kristen will really push each other,” Brown says.
“Kelly had a great senior year and a solid club season and has worked very hard in terms of strength and conditioning. I am excited about the way she has embraced the position and is coming in looking to compete in every way. That is going to make our practices so much better, with Kristen running one side and Kelly running the other.”
Another change for the Irish this season will be at opposite. Kristy Kreher was a four-year starter on the right side for Notre Dame and will be replaced by a rotation of players.
“Katie Neff, Emily Loomis, Kim Fletcher or any of the three freshmen middle blockers (Carolyn Cooper, Lauren Brewster and Lauren Kelbley) may see time at opposite,” Brown says.
“We are not going to have a standard line up when one person plays right side all the time. We might mix up our rotations and see what works best.”
Over at outside hitter, a vast number of players will be competing for playing time. Another position that Brown considers wide open welcomes back starter Emily Loomis, junior Jessica Kinder, sophomore Leah Nedderman and freshmen Meg Henican and Lindsay Peterson. Cooper, Brewster or Kelbley could also see some time at outside hitter as well.
Loomis chalked up 221 kills during her freshman season last year, including a stellar 19-kill effort in the BIG EAST Championship match against Georgetown. She ended up with nine double-digit kill performances in her rookie year with two double-doubles. Jessica Kinder is well-regarded for having one of the hardest attacks on the team and is very solid defensively. J. Kinder was inserted into matches a number of times in 2001 to utilize her jump serve as well (she ended up with 24 aces).
The deepest position for the Irish this season will be middle blocker. Three highly-rated freshmen join returning veterans Fletcher, Katie Neff and Kelly Corbett. The rookie trio of Brewster, Cooper and Kelbley all stand over 6-2 and will help the Irish control the net in 2002.
“Katie Neff is someone that can player middle, right or left,” Brown says.
“In the spring, she was for sure our most improved player. She became a dominate player in the spring and that was exciting to see.”
Fletcher, who also is in the mix at opposite, is the top returning offensive player for the Irish. She ended up third on the team last year with 252 kills with a solid .305 hitting percentage. Fletcher also excelled at the net with 109 blocks.
Junior middle blocker Kim Fletcher, a preseason all-BIG EAST selection, should be a threat on offense (252 kills in ’01) and defense (118 blocks in ’01).
“Fletcher was our most offensive player in the middle last year and in the spring as well,” Brown says.
“She certainly brings us a lot offensively. The three freshmen also will help us in the middle. They all have strengths and it is hard to say right now who is the best hitter or blocker. They all have the ability to be strong in the middle.”
Brown and her coaching staff will be charged to put the pieces together quickly in 2002. After hosting the traditional Shamrock Invitational on Aug. 30 – Sept. 1., the Irish will head to California for the Loyola Marymount Volleyball Classic in Los Angeles. The tournament field includes the home team, volleyball power Colorado and Saint Louis, who knocked the Irish off last season.
Highly-rated Pepperdine will visit the Joyce Center on Sept. 14, during the Golden Dome Invitational (Northwestern and Loyola (Md.) are also in the field). Brown embraces the challenge of the early-season schedule.
“We have some tough teams and some tough teams early,” Brown says.
“With our group that I would consider as a young team, that is a tough assignment for us. We will be so much better at the end of the season. It is going to be motivating for the team because we are going to get better and better.”