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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame prepares to open season with exhibition game

Marina Mabrey, Kristina Nelson, Arike Ogunbowale, Danielle Patterson, Lili Thompson, Mikayla Vaughn and Jackie Young.

And that’s it.

When No. 5 Notre Dame starts the 2017–18 season with an exhibition Wednesday night against Indiana University (Pennsylvania) (IUP), it will have only seven healthy and eligible scholarship players. Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld should join that list early in the season when she recovers from ankle surgery, but for much of the rest of the season, the Irish will still be severely depleted.

Observer File Photo
Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale dribbles around a defender during Notre Dame's 76-75 loss to Stanford on March 24 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

“She didn’t practice at all today,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of Westbeld. “We’re working towards having her for the first game. We still have another two weeks, so we’re hoping that she can go for a couple of minutes, definitely not the full game but a couple of minutes there.”

First, senior forward Brianna Turner announced she would undergo season-ending ACL surgery for an ACL tear suffered during last year’s NCAA tournament second-round victory over Purdue. Then, just a week before the season began, senior guard Mychal Johnson — having only recently been cleared to practice after recovering from shoulder surgery — went down with an ACL tear as well. With junior forward Jessica Shepard currently set to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules after her move from Nebraska, and sophomore forward Erin Boley and junior guard Ali Patberg both transferring away from Notre Dame during the offseason, the Irish depth has taken a more-than-considerable hit. Shepard may still be an option for the Irish, however, as the team is applying for a hardship waiver to have her granted immediate eligibility.

“We were supposed to hear [Tuesday],” McGraw said. “So we could still hear soon. We’re putting her with the second team right now.”

Yet — as always — big things are expected. The team’s No. 5 preseason ranking is the lowest the Irish have had since 2013–14, but reflects the success McGraw’s teams have had in recent years regardless of personnel, including an NCAA tournament victory over Ohio State last year with Turner out. The talent of the players that do remain plays its part too. Junior guards Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey were both named preseason All-ACC selections after scoring 15.9 and 14.6 points per game last season, respectively. However, after the injury to two-time ACC defensive player of the year Turner, McGraw said she needed to turn a team with proven offensive ability into one that can play effective defense as well.

“We’ve had to reset our tone to become a defensively-minded team after losing our shot-blocker,” McGraw said. “We have to be willing to take a charge; we have to have great help defense; we’ve got to know the rotations; we have to play great on-the-ball defense without fouling. We can’t just think about outscoring people.”

The Irish may be asked to rely on a significant role from their walk-ons this season: junior forward Maureen Butler and sophomore guard Kaitlin Cole. McGraw said that Cole in particular had impressed and she hoped to see the pair make an impact against IUP.

“I’m really excited about Cole,” McGraw said. “She’s a smart player, she picked things up really quickly and we’re going to need her for some big minutes. She’s going to have to be smart and on top of things defensively, she’s really going to play a pretty important part, especially if we get into foul trouble.”

The Crimson Hawks posted a 24-7 season last year playing in Division II’s PSAC. Although they may not bring the all-around talent and athleticism of many other Irish opponents this season, McGraw said the team brings some dangerous shooters, including junior guard Carolyn Appleby, who averaged 14.7 points last season.

“They’re a 3-point shooting team,” McGraw said. “They shot over 500 threes last year; they’re definitely good shooters. We’re really going to have to watch them from the three-point line. They’re very mobile and very well-coached. I think it’s going to be a really good game.

“ ... It’s always exciting to get that first game, getting in the uniforms for the first time, because right now we have only seven scholarship players, we’re really hoping our walk-ons are ready. The exhibition games are really important for us, seeing everyone do things at game speed. But with our lack of depth we have to be really careful and try not to foul so much.”