There was a buzz around Notre Dame volleyball at this point a year ago. An Irish program that had once been a consistent winner had stagnated around the turn of the decade. They brought in first-time head coach Salima Rockwell who, with an extensive playing pedigree, had the support of everyone. Even head football coach Marcus Freeman, who met with Rockwell before she even took the job, attended a match last fall. When she was hired, Rockwell called Notre Dame volleyball “a program that is right on the edge of greatness.”
Her assessment made sense. The Irish entered the Rockwell era with an all-time record of 827-519, a .614 winning percentage. They reached the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2021, even winning their first-round game. But greatness was not in store for the Irish last fall. Far from it, in fact. Notre Dame finished 10-18, its worst mark since a 7-25 disaster in 2015. That also came in the first year of Jim McLaughlin’s coaching tenure, who led the Irish to consecutive 22-10 seasons the next two years and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2017.
There have may been some hard moments for the Irish in Rockwell’s first season, but a year spent growing as a coach and growing the program was a feature, not a bug. Rockwell believes that will be reflected in the team’s growth this fall.
“We had an amazing group of young women that worked their tails off that helped us create a culture of excellence of hard work of representing the University, all those things,” Rockwell said. “Despite our record last year, it was an absolute win-win season for me, for the team and for our future. I learned a lot along the way, but I think the biggest thing is just moving forward. I have very high expectations of the team now and moving forward, but it’s all about the process.”
A new coach can have a huge impact on a program, but she can only do so much without the right roster. Given the Irish went 13-15 in 2022 leading into Rockwell’s arrival, expecting greatness in year one was probably unreasonable. Rockwell was aware the team had holes to plug, and over the summer, the Irish did their best to fill them. The team brought in five freshmen and two transfers, including a rare undergraduate transfer in junior outside hitter Sydney Palazzolo from High Point.
“Anyone can play for us right now, which is so reassuring,” Rockwell said. “And it's really nice to have that level of depth. We have five freshmen that have come in and all have really been getting after it in the gym.”
The new additions haven’t waited to make their mark. Two freshmen — outside hitter Ava Lange and libero Alyssa Manitzas — stepped up in Notre Dame’s first two matches of the season, as did Palazzolo and graduate student setter Nicole Drewnick (a Georgia Tech transfer). Last year, the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-4 and established a streaky tendency that would never stabilize throughout the campaign.
This time around, the Irish won their opening match, coming from behind to beat Wichita State before another comeback effort against Texas Tech on the Red Raiders’ home court fell short. It’s only two games, of course, but Rockwell is impressed by what she’s seen from her team so far.
“We started the match with the right mentality, [the one] that we’ve had all through preseason,” Rockwell said. “We really took the last few weeks to talk about the process, about getting better, about trusting one another. All of those things that are important to get to the endgame, really not focusing on outcomes, but our training. And it was really, really cool to see all of those things come through.”
But just because the Irish had holes to fill for 2023 didn’t mean the cupboard was barren. When Rockwell arrived, she was immediately impressed by senior libero Hattie Monson. She had played almost 200 sets in her first two seasons in South Bend and was already a classic “leadership by example” style of player. But Rockwell saw an opportunity for Monson to grow, even if it meant stepping out of her comfort zone and into a more vocal role.
“The team just respects her work ethic,” Rockwell said. “Because she doesn’t talk all the time, it’s very valuable, the things she has to say are impactful. So, on the court, of course, she did almost five digs, [which] for six, seven digs of sets, is crazy. But more than that, she passed [the ball] … She’s just elevated for game and she wants to be great. And she’s put in the work to do it on and off the court.”
Monson isn’t the only returner leading the charge for the Irish in 2023. Sophomore outside hitter Lucy Trump earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors late last season. Senior middle blocker Charity McDowell was spoken highly of by Rockwell as one of the team’s top blockers a year ago. Another senior middle blocker, Lauren Tarnoff, is also looking to build off a strong second half last fall.
The road to greatness is a bumpy one with no shortcuts. Time will tell how the journey goes for the Irish. Outsiders may not see much success in the numbers of Rockwell’s debut season. Dig deeper, though, and there is evidence the Irish are on that road.
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