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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

Squad makes round of 32 appearance to close 14-3 season

After dominating its regular-season schedule en route to a 14-3 record, the 2020-2021 Notre Dame volleyball team advanced to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row, the third time in the past four seasons, and twenty-first time overall in program history. In Omaha, Notre Dame won its first-round tournament matchup against West Point in four sets to advance to the team’s twelfth ever Round of 32 appearance before falling in straight sets (17-25, 22-25, 13-25) to No. 10 Oregon to finish the season 15-4 overall.

After the season-ending loss to Oregon, Irish head coach Mike Johnson was confident this season was merely a taste of what’s to come.

“I think we can play better. I think there’s more out there for us,” coach Johnson said. “This was a team that had three freshmen on the floor all year, we lose two really great seniors, but for me, I’m always motivated … For us, we’re going to learn from this. We’re going to improve. We’re going to be back and we’re going to be better.”

Photo Courtesy ND Athletics
Irish junior libero Lexi Saulny digs a ball from the back row to set up a play during Notre Dame's 3-1 win over Clemson.

In the first-round win over Army, the Irish racked up 10 service aces and 17 total blocks, good enough for second and third-most, respectively, in program history at the tournament. With the win, Notre Dame moved to 12-9 all-time in first-round matches in the tournament.

The Irish went 13-3 in conference play during the regular season, missing out on the conference championship by only one game to Louisville, a team the Irish swept on the road in the two teams lone matchup of the season. The second-place finish in the ACC is Notre Dame’s best since joining the conference in 2014.

In what was the first-ever combined fall-and-spring volleyball season, the Irish won the first four matches of the season and carried that momentum throughout the entire season, finishing 6-1 in the fall portion of games and 8-2 in the spring after the three-month pause. Eight of Notre Dame’s 15 wins came via straight-set sweeps. In fact, the Irish swept all three of the other ACC teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament in Georgia Tech, Louisville and Pittsburgh during the regular season.

Juniors Charley Niego and Zoe Nunez led the way for the Irish for the third consecutive season. Niego put up 244 kills and 179 digs in 62 sets played, and Nunez dished out 753 assists to go along with 224 digs in all 71 sets. Both were named First Team All-ACC selections for their efforts for the second straight year. The First Team nod for Niego and Nunez means they’ve earned All-ACC accolades in every season with the Irish, since as freshmen in 2018 the pair also acquired ACC All-Freshman and Second Team All-ACC honors together.

Niego finished with nine double-doubles on the season, eight of which came in just twelve spring matches, while Nunez added 14 of her own. Niego’s 4.07 kills per set ranked third in the ACC, while Nunez’s mark of 10.92 assists was good enough for second in the ACC. This season, Nunez became just the eighth player in program history to reach 3,000 career assists.

Notre Dame got more veteran help from senior Hannah Thompson, the Irish defensive stalwart who put up 102 kills and a team-leading 80 total blocks in what was her most productive career season with the team. Thompson put up a dominant eight-block performance against Army in the first-round win alongside junior Lauren Wenzel, who also added eight blocks in the game.

The team also found much success thanks to excellent play from a talented unit of underclassmen. Sophomore Caroline Meuth earned Second Team All-ACC honors for the second straight season after putting up 189 kills, 114 digs, 61 total blocks and five double-double performances. Joining Meuth on the Second Team was freshman Lindsey Miller, who added 119 kills of her own with a .442 hitting percentage, the fourth-best percentage in the ACC and eleventh-best in the nation.

Miller made the All-ACC Freshman Team alongside teammates Aubrey Hamilton and Hattie Monson. Hamilton collected 179 kills for the season, posting double-digit kills in ten matches, while Monson led the team with 278 digs, a number that ranked third in the ACC. Both Hamilton and Monson appeared in every set of the regular season for the team.

According to coach Johnson, these three freshmen, in particular, were crucial to the team’s success.

“There were a number of matches that it was really easy to forget that they were freshmen. Our team leaned on them heavily, I can’t say that enough. But that said, I think all three of them have a lot more in them. The ceiling for all of them is very high. I’m really excited for what they’ll do going forward as they continue to improve.”

In total, the Irish earned six All-ACC awards. It was the second time in coach Johnson’s three seasons that three freshmen earned All-Freshman honors (2018: Niego, Nunez, Sydney Bent).

As coach Johnson points out, this is a testament to the environment that has been built in the program.

“I think the energy and the vibe that you see when you watch us play, that’s somewhat just in the nature of the kids that we’ve got. We want to recruit players who love to play the game of volleyball, and feel a passion and a pride to represent Notre Dame and I think you really see that within this team.”

Yet, coach Johnson also was quick to mention the impact that the Notre Dame fans, especially the students, have on the way his team performs. For the majority of the season, no fans were allowed at games, though that changed toward the end of the season.

“It was really awesome to see the students be able to come out at the very end of the year, and I can’t put into words the impact that those guys have on our team,” Johnson said. “Our team thrives off the energy that students are capable of bringing … so it was great for the students to be able to come out and be a part of it.”

Thus, in the three years since Mike Johnson took over from the legendary Jim McLaughlin as head coach of the program, Notre Dame volleyball has compiled an overall record of 50-26 and advanced to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. This is especially notable given prior to the 2017 season, Johnson’s last as an assistant to McLaughlin, Notre Dame had not reached the NCAA tournament since 2012. In fact, the Irish had even failed to post a winning record or double-digit wins in the two seasons leading up to 2017.

In spite of this season’s undeniable success, coach Johnson anticipates a brighter future for the program.

“For us, it’s about constant growth and continual improvement. When you come to ND you have the opportunity to try to become the very best, and so the standard for us is the pursuit of a national championship,” Johnson said. “So while I’m really proud of this team, and we took a number of really good steps forward, I still think each of our players can get better, and I think me as a coach can get better. What I look forward to more than just kind of adding up the record or the rankings are: Am I a better player and a coach today than I was yesterday? If we can do that, a cumulative effect can be staggered.”

Notre Dame will be without seniors Hannah Thompson and Monroe Olsen next season, but the Irish also welcome two 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year selections in Paris Thompson from Florida and Phyona Schrader out of Iowa.