Notre Dame begins its seasonat home today with an exhibition game against Lake Superior State - and it will do so without its top three scorers from last year.
The Irish lost seniors Megan Duffy and Courtney LaVere to graduation after last season. Sophomore guard Lindsay Schrader, who was second on the team in scoring last season with 10.5 points per game, suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice two weeks ago.
"We've lost a really good player in all ways [in Schrader], but its an opportunity for someone to step up," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think we're equal opportunity on offense. Last year we relied on Megan, maybe a little bit too much, but now is the chance for other people to shine."
Junior guard Charel Allen is the leading returning player for the Irish after averaging 8.5 points a game off the bench last season.
After a long preseason practice schedule, McGraw is looking forward to seeing the team play against someone else.
"Its just a great chance to face a team that hasn't seen you play," she said. "You tend to cheat when you play against your own offense, so it'll be a good change of pace for us."
Lake Superior State finished 21-8 and advanced to the Div. II regional quarterfinals coming out of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference. The Lakers return three players who averaged more than 10 points a game last season, including senior forward Mandi Johnson, who led all returning players with 13.3 points per game.
Coming off of an 18-12 season and without their three top scorers, many have predicted that this year will be a rebuilding one for the Irish. In a recent poll of Big East coaches, Notre Dame was picked to finish 11th in the 16-team league.
McGraw, however, has confidence in her squad.
"I've seen so much from last year to this year that it's amazing how much better everyone has gotten," she said. "I feel as though they kind of took it upon themselves to work on their game [and] they all came back better."
The Irish will be led this season by captains Breona Gray and Tulyah Gaines.
"Tulyah [Gaines] has become so much more vocal, [and] she's really taken charge of the team," McGraw said. "[Breona Gray is] more of a leader by example, by her work ethic, and I think she's done an excellent job as well."
Against the Lakers, McGraw will likely start a veteran lineup of Gray, Gaines, Allen, senior forward Crystal Erwin and junior center Melissa D'Amico.
The returning veterans will also be joined by a talented group of freshmen that includes Women's Basketball Coaches Association high school All-American Ashley Barlow and Indiana Miss Basketball runner-up Melissa Lechlitner.
"I've got pretty high expectations for our freshmen," McGraw said. "I expect a lot out of them because I think they're capable of doing a lot, so I would say that I really am expecting them to look comfortable a little sooner than most groups would."
Ultimately, McGraw believes today's exhibition will help the Irish determine where they stand internally.
"We want to find out about ourselves," she said. "We want to find out which groups work together [and] what kind of groups look good in certain offenses."