Notre Dame's unbeaten start has team thinking big

There's a trend developing at Notre Dame in 2005.

Begin the season as an unranked team, post impressive victories against Top 25 opponents, and the next thing you know, you're considered a legitimate threat to win a national championship.

While the Notre Dame football team has grabbed the headlines with season-opening wins at then-No. 23 Pittsburgh and No. 3 Michigan, it isn't the only Irish team that has been able to "wake up the echoes." ND's volleyball team has been just as impressive during the first two weeks of its season.

The Fighting Irish are 6-0 and already have three victories over nationally ranked opponents. Notre Dame defeated No. 11 Texas at home in its third match of the year, then added victories over No. 8 USC and No. 6 Florida last weekend at the Texas-San Antonio Dome Rally, one of the premier regular-season tournaments on this year's schedule.

Notre Dame lost its first game against the Trojans, and then won nine in a row to finish the tournament as the only undefeated team. The Irish beat a pair of Top-10 opponents in one weekend for the first time in the program's history and became the first team to sweep Florida since 2003.

But as the awards and honors roll in, the Irish know there is a lot to do if they are going to return to the Alamodome at the end of the season.

"We know there is still so much room for improvement," head coach Debbie Brown said. "Each match we've played has exposed more and more of our weaknesses and we know more and more what we need to work on and how we need to get better. We feel like we're going to continue to get better and better as the year goes on.

"If we think we've arrived and we're all that, then we're going to be in real trouble. I think our team knows we need to continue to work really hard and we need to get a lot better. All of the teams we've played are going to get a lot better. It's very early in the season."

It may be early in the season, but Notre Dame's performance has captured the attention of the coaches who vote for the Top 25. The Irish were not ranked in the preseason poll, but they jumped to No. 19 following the victory over the Longhorns. This week, they climbed all the way to No. 8, which marked the largest single-week and two-week moves in the history of the poll.

One voter who was impressed is Florida head coach Mary Wise.

"This was a match against a team that has a chance to go to the Final Four," Wise was quoted in UF's post-match release. "They have all the pieces and are the real deal. They might be a top-five team right now."

Notre Dame has been successful because of its ability to win the big points in close games. With four seniors on the court, the Irish have the talent and the experience necessary to make plays when the outcome of the match is still in doubt.

At the Dome Rally, ND won eight of nine games that were decided by four points or less. Another indication of how close the matches were is that in 10 games, there were a combined 93 ties and 36 lead changes.

"That is one of the things that I absolutely love about this team," senior middle blocker Lauren Brewster said. "We make the plays when we need to. This group of girls has proven to each other and our opponents that when our backs are against the wall, we're not going to roll over. We're going to keep fighting as a team."

Brewster was the most dominating player in the tournament with 52 kills and 18 blocks in just 10 total games. The All-American had 17 kills and seven blocks against USC and came back with 20 kills and seven blocks in the three-game victory over the Gators. That performance led to Brewster being named MVP of the tournament.

Adding to Notre Dame's dominance at the net are senior outside hitter Lauren Kelbley, who was also named to the all-tournament team, and senior middle blocker/opposite hitter Carolyn Cooper. That trio led a defensive effort that averaged 3.9 blocks per game and held its opponents to a .149 hitting percentage.

In the back row, the Irish have senior libero/outside hitter Meg Henican. A two-year captain and three-time monogram winner, Henican set an Irish single-season record for digs as a junior and could become the program's career leader by the end of the 2005 campaign.

"We all played really well as a team," Brewster said. "We made some mistakes, but we stepped it up at the right time."

Kelbley was one of the players who consistently delivered in the clutch. She tied her career high with 25 kills against USC, including two that helped ND overcome a 29-27 deficit in Game 2 and three of the final four kills in Game 3. Against Florida, she ended Game 1 with a kill and closed out the match with a kill and a solo block after the score was tied at 28 in Game 3.

"We've stayed composed at the end of games," Brown said. "We have a lot of confidence in our ability to score points on our serve. Our serving is really tough, our blocking is good and we're playing really good defense behind the block. I think there is just a high level of confidence on the team that we can do it.

"And with five seniors on the team, their experience, leadership and the things they bring to practice every day are huge in terms of getting us to play well in matches. It's not something that just magically happens when you get on the court to play a match. It's the habits we build in the practice gym each day."

Another habit the Irish are hoping to maintain is their success in Texas.

Notre Dame will put its 3-0 record in the Lone Star State on the line this weekend, when the team travels to College Station to play Tulane and LSU. Those matches were supposed to have been played in New Orleans as part of the Sugar Bowl Classic, but Hurricane Katrina made that impossible.

For Brewster and the Irish, there can't be too many trips to Texas in 2005. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the season may end with another trip to San Antonio for the Division I national championship.

Team of the Week
Santa Clara proved that it is worthy of a Top-25 ranking with victories over No. 15 Arizona and No. 18 UC Santa Barbara in last weekend's Bronco Invitational. SCU improved to 6-0 and is one of only six teams in the latest poll that remain undefeated. The Broncos were not ranked in the preseason Top 25, but have climbed to No. 17 in the latest rankings. After beginning the tournament with a sweep of Fresno State, Santa Clara beat the Wildcats 30-20, 30-20, 27-30, 33-31. The following afternoon, the Broncos swept the Gauchos 30-21, 30-15, 30-19. Senior outside hitter Cassie Perret was named tournament MVP after collecting 41 kills, 21 digs, 12 blocks and a hitting percentage of .415 during the three matches.

Back Home Again In West Lafayette
Despite playing its last seven games on the road, Purdue will take an 8-0 record into the Mortar Board Premier Tournament at the Intercollegiate Athletics Facility. The Boilermakers are already off to the program's best start since 1985, when Purdue opened the season with a 13-0 record. And a victory over Ohio University Friday would give the Boilermakers a nine-match winning streak for the first time since 1990. No. 16 Tennessee and Xavier are also in this year's Mortar Board field. Purdue will be looking for its third tournament title this year after having won titles at Pacific and North Carolina the last two weekends. The Boilermakers will open Big Ten play the following week with matches at No. 14 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State.

Coming Attractions
Second-ranked Washington will face its first test of the 2005 season when the Huskies travel to Honolulu for a pair of matches with No. 6 Hawaii. UW has breezed through the first three weeks of the season, posting an 8-0 record and winning all 24 individual games. Only two of Washington's opponents have scored more than 20 points in a single game against the Huskies -- Portland (21) and North Dakota State (24) -- while two others couldn't get past 15 points in any of the three games. Conversely, Hawaii has already played five matches against opponents ranked in the Top 10. The Rainbow Wahine defeated No. 8 USC and No. 10 UCLA, but lost to No. 1 Nebraska and to No. 4 Penn State twice. Hawaii holds a 7-1 lead in the series with Washington and hasn't lost to the Huskies since 1992. Another interesting matchup will be No. 23 St. Mary's College (Calif.) playing at No. 3 Stanford. The Gaels swept the season series with the Cardinal last year, including a five-game victory at Stanford. That probably won't happen again this year.

Rally Points
Texas A&M senior outside hitter Laura Jones broke an A&M record with 39 points against LSU Saturday, smashing the previous record of 32 points originally set by Melissa Munsch in 2003 and tied by Jones against Texas in 2004. Jones' 35 kills against the Tigers tied the school record set by Kristie Smedsrud against Wisconsin in 1996. … Winthrop senior outside hitter Mary Hock had a school-record 10 aces against Furman. … Senior setter Renata Dargan broke the Purdue record for career assists in the Boilermakers' victory over Butler. Including the other three matches in the week, Dargan pushed her career-assist mark to 4,718. … Wyoming set the Mountain West Conference record for team digs in a single match with 106 vs. Northern Colorado on Sept. 3. The Cowgirls' mark broke BYU's record of 102 set on Nov. 23, 2001, vs. Cal Poly. Freshman Carissa Lee set the single-match record with 34 digs vs. the Bears, surpassing the record of 33 digs set by MWC players Connie Dangerfield (Utah) and Lindsey Evans (BYU) in 2004. … Western Illinois junior libero Jennifer Alexander tied her own school record for digs in a single match with 41 against Southern Mississippi. Senior middle hitter Jenna Yurs had a school-record 17 block assists the following day in a win over Murray State. … Senior middle hitter Fabiana Souza set the IPFW record for career kills, passing the old mark of 1,895 set by Laura Douglas in 2000. Souza had 17 against Southern Mississippi to finish the match with
1,901. … Bowling Green's Denise Van De Walle picked up career win No. 400 with the Falcons' sweep of Chicago State. … Utah's Beth Launiere earned her 300th career victory with the Utes' season-opening win over Idaho State. … TCU's Prentice Lewis became the winningest coach in the program's history with her 58th win on Sept. 3 against Seton Hall.

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.