Seniors pick up Notre Dame volleyball
Irish's leaders take team from just missing the cut to Big East front runners
When the seniors on the Notre Dame volleyball team committed to play for the Fighting Irish, they were widely considered one of the top five recruiting classes going into the 2006 season.
The group had talent at every position and included four players ranked among the top 150 senior aces by PrepVolleyball.com -- Christina Kaelin (No. 9), Megan Fesl (No. 14), Serinity Phillips (No. 21) and Kim Kristoff (No. 86) -- and one honorable mention selection, Jamel Nicholas.
On paper, the class appeared to be more than capable of continuing Notre Dame's tradition of dominating the Big East, in which the Irish won 10 of 14 regular-season titles (two shared) and nine of 14 tournaments since joining the conference prior to the 1995 campaign.
But during their first three seasons, the program's accomplishments never quite lived up to its expectations. There were no Big East titles. No appearances in the NCAA tournament. And last season, Notre Dame's fifth-place conference finish during the regular season was its lowest ever.
That's when the seniors decided to make a change.
"None of us have accomplished many things here at Notre Dame," said outside hitter Christina Kaelin, one of this season's co-captains. "We've never won the regular-season Big East championship. We've never won the Big East tournament."
When the Irish dropped a five-set decision to Louisville in the championship match of the 2008 Big East tournament, it meant no postseason for Notre Dame for the third season in a row. So Kaelin and her teammates turned their attention to this season and they were determined to do everything within their power to achieve their many goals for the first time.
"The team approached the season as the first," Kaelin said. "But the seniors saw the season as the first, the last, the only opportunity we have left to achieve many of the things we set out to accomplish since our freshmen season."
That determination has paid off. So far this season, the Irish have accomplished almost everything they set out to do and then some.
It took only two matches for Notre Dame to see the 2009 season would, indeed, be special. The Irish earned their first victory in six tries against Stanford, sweeping the Cardinal for their first win over a top-5 opponent since 1993.
"That set the tone for us for the year," Coach Debbie Brown said. "When you have a win like that the first weekend, it gives the team tremendous confidence that they can compete with a program that's always in the top 10 and a team that went to the Final Four last year. It was huge in our growth and knowing that we could play at a really high level."
Two weekends later, the Irish gained even more confidence when they snapped a six-match losing streak against Wisconsin. That victory also was important because Notre Dame needed to re-establish its mojo after losses to Tennessee and Michigan.
Battling through adversity is nothing new to Kaelin, who missed the entire 2007 season while recovering from a shoulder injury. She made the most of her time on the sideline by mastering the mental side of the game, and her efforts in rehabilitation made her shoulder stronger than ever.
"It took almost a full year for her to be back to where she could put the same velocity on her swings," Brown said, "but missing that year helped Christina develop her mental game.
"She's using all of her shots and she's a smart, aggressive attacker. The biggest change for Christina is she understands she doesn't have to rely on sheer power to score."
Kaelin, who has not yet decided if she will take advantage of one remaining year of eligibility, and sophomore Kristen Dealy give the Irish a solid one-two punch on the outside. On the other side of the court, Phillips has become one of the most effective opposite hitters in the nation.
Phillips leads the team averaging 3.51 kills and 4.23 points per set, both ranking No. 8 in the Big East. She also puts up a big block and can put the ball away from the back row.
"Serinity is doing a phenomenal job on the right side blocking, hitting and playing back row," Brown said. "In terms of a right-side blocker, she could be one of the best in the country. I don't know there are too many averaging more than a block per set [Phillips averages 1.04]."
The Irish lead the Big East and are No. 21 in Division I with a .262 team hitting percentage, due in large part to Nicholas' ability to run a balanced attack.
"Jamel [Nicholas] has been phenomenal as our setter," Brown said. "We played a 6-2 offense a lot of the time she's been here. This year, we're a straight 5-1 because we don't have another setter. She's a great leader and she's really focused and determined to make this a great year."
Tara Enzweiler is a 5-foot-10 senior middle blocker who averages a team-leading 1.14 blocks per set.
"The senior class has been amazing," Brown said. "The commitment and the drive they've shown throughout the season have been pretty remarkable. They're providing great leadership and experience."
That leadership was on display last weekend when Notre Dame clinched at least a share of the Big East regular-season title and the top seed for the conference tournament for the first time since 2005 by coming from behind to post four-set victories at Marquette and Syracuse.
This week, the No. 24 Irish made their first appearance in the American Volleyball Caches Association Women's Top 25 Poll since the first week of the 2006 season, when they were ranked No. 23.
With a two-match lead over both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Notre Dame can claim the Big East regular-season title outright with a victory over either Georgetown or South Florida this weekend at Purcell Pavilion, its refurbished home in the Joyce Center.
"We're taking it day by day," Phillips said. "We still want to be undefeated in the Big East. We're not looking too far ahead.
"Last year, we didn't end the season the way we wanted to. We talked about really stepping up and relying on our seniors. We made it very clear from the beginning that theses are our goals and we're going to accomplish them."
In addition to a pair of Big East Championships, the Irish seniors are hoping to add at least one more first to their list of accomplishments: returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. And then there is the possibility of playing host to a tournament match for the first time since a second-round victory over Northwestern that year.
Regardless of where Notre Dame plays in the tournament, Kaelin is confident the Irish have what it takes to make a long run.
"We haven't had a match recently where everyone on the team has had their best performance," she said. "When everything is hitting on all cylinders, we're capable of taking our game to a higher level. We've had good team performances, but I don't think we've played our best yet."
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.