The Notre Dame Fighting Irish volleyball team had many question marks entering the 2019 season, but with the first 10 matches, they have a 8-2 record and have started to find some answers.
The first weekend of the season saw wins over La Salle and Bowling Green but a disappointing five-set defeat to Wright State. After a clean sweep of Valparaiso, the Irish downed No. 18 Purdue at home in front of an animated crowd.
Following an 18-12 campaign in 2018, including a 10-8 record in the ACC, coach Mike Johnson’s squad saw the departure of a few key seniors. Most notably, libero Ryan DeJarld left huge shoes to fill. The Chicago native finished her career as Notre Dame’s all-time leader in digs with 2,340. She had 532 in 2018 and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
The Irish also lost outside hitter Rebecca Nunge, who was tied for fourth on the 2018 team in kills per set (1.94). An unexpected loss came when senior star Jemma Yeadon started 2019 on the bench, sidelined due to injury. Yeadon led the team in kills per set last year at 3.44.
Thus began competition within the team. Every player sought to earn a starting spot, and young players had ample opportunities to prove themselves. “This is still a very young group,” said head coach Mike Johnson. “Six or seven [of our starters] were freshmen or sophomores. And so when the group is younger, there’s just a lot of lessons to learn ... they’ve been willing to let us push them.”
Hitters Charley Niego and Sydney Bent, who finished first and third respectively on the 2018 team in kills during their freshman season, looked to take charge in year two. Liberos Kiara Schmidt and Madison Cruzado hoped to follow up DeJarld’s record-setting career. Middle blockers Kristin Baer and Lauren Wenzel aimed to lead the Irish inside.
As classes began and students filtered back onto campus, the preseason waned. Months of preparation in practice would give way to non-conference matchups in August and early September. First came the Golden Dome invitational versus La Salle, Wright State and Bowling Green.
“We never know what our team will look like until the lights are on,” Johnson said.
The Aug. 30 opener against La Salle ended in a 3-1 win for the Irish, and Bent led the attack with 14 kills. Freshman outside hitter Caroline Meuth also burst onto the scene with 11 kills.
On Aug. 31, Notre Dame suffered an upset loss in five sets to Wright State. The Raiders won the first two sets, but the Irish clawed back and forced a decisive fifth set which Wright State won 15-11. Meuth tallied 18 kills and Niego added 17.
Short term memory proved essential as Notre Dame had to play Bowling Green just hours after Wright State. The Irish won 3-1, including a 25-9 fourth set victory. Cruzado helped limit Bowling Green to just a .062 hitting percentage.
“Coming down from that weekend we were able to study the film, address some areas to improve and made some really important improvements that led to the following week,” Johnson said.
Improve they did. Following the Golden Dome Invitational, the Irish had their first clean sweep of the year — a 3-0 win over Valparaiso. The match was also the first of four Notre Dame games televised on the newly launched ACC Network.
Sept. 6 saw a top-20 opponent come to South Bend, the No. 18 Purdue Boilermakers. In their 2018 matchup, Purdue won 3-1, but this year the Irish won in a thrilling five-set match. Facing a one set deficit and a 24-24 tie in the second set, Notre Dame clinched the set to tie the match thanks to Wenzel’s kill and Purdue’s attack error. After Purdue’s third set victory, the Irish then won sets four and five to secure the 3-2 victory.
“I thought we played with a tremendous amount of heart,” Johnson said. “And I thought we had done the best job we have to date of maintaining our focus at such a high level for that long a period of time.”
Moving forward, the Irish will turn their attention to conference play and seek to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. Next up, they will take on Michigan Sept. 22 at 3 p.m. in Ann Arbor.
When asked about the road ahead, Johnson said, “This group has shown an ability to respond to adversity, and now we have to respond to success. In some ways, that can be harder.”