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The Observer

Drewnick, Palazzolo helping Irish play inspiring volleyball in 2023

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Notre Dame volleyball head coach Salima Rockwell directs her players during the game against Duke at the Purcell Pavilion on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022.


Last year was a difficult one for Notre Dame volleyball. Upon moving on from Mike Johnson and bringing in Salima Rockwell as head coach, the Irish achieved 10 wins or less for just the fifth time in their 43-year history. So Rockwell went to work, bringing in two transfers to accelerate the program’s rebuild. Those players, graduate student setter Nicole Drewnick and junior outside hitter Sydney Palazzolo, have helped 8-2 Notre Dame find something different in 2023. What is it?

“Overall, it’s love. We want people to see the love we have for each other and for that to inspire them,” Drewnick said. “We want to shock the world with what we're doing.”

Drewnick has brought valuable experience from her four years at high-level programs in Nebraska and Georgia Tech. In the three seasons Drewnick contributed, her teams went a combined 75-19, reaching the NCAA Elite Eight twice. 

That experience, meshed with the care of her new coaching staff and teammates, has helped Drewnick thrive at Notre Dame. Through 10 games, her 10.38 assists per set rank third in the ACC. More importantly, she serves as an Irish co-captain, acting as the team’s glue in the eyes of Rockwell. Just last weekend, as she posted a remarkable 50 assists against Toledo, Drewnick fully realized her gratitude for her journey. That Sunday, she posted a heartfelt Instagram video expressing it.

“I was driving over to the match and listening to some music trying to get my mind right for the game,” Drewnick recalled. “And I just got a little bit emotional because I was looking back on [how] I’ve been doing this for the past five years of my life. I feel like I’m finally at a point now, [that] this is what 16-year-old Nicole dreamed of.”

That 16-year-old Nicole faced a litany of challenges. As a Brazilian dual-citizen, she spent time training abroad, even competing for Brazil’s U20 National Team in 2018. But those opportunities moved her high school experience largely online. At one point, she made the final decision to combine her final two years into a short period so she could graduate early and join her first collegiate team, the Cornhuskers, in Asia.

“Those few months were just a lot of time locked away in my room studying. And if I wasn’t studying, I was in the gym,” Drewnick said. “That taught me a lot about priorities. But also, [that] it’s important to have time with family and friends.”

Even as Drewnick grinds through the demanding life of a student-athlete, she has taken time for personal connection. Over the past few years, she has coached at her parents’ Instinct Volleyball Club back home in Dallas, a place where she grew up around other volleyball players. Now, Drewnick wants to help the next generation of student-athletes grow and learn, just as she continues to grow and learn at Notre Dame.

“I think the biggest thing is trusting the process and controlling what you can control,” Drewnick said. “Also, understanding that focusing on yourself isn’t necessarily a selfish thing. It allows you to put your best self out there for others.”

Time and time again this season, Drewnick’s best self has allowed Palazzolo to succeed since arriving from High Point. Whether it’s using her sets to accumulate an ACC-best 4.3 kills per set or feeding off her leadership, Palazzolo has found magic in her time with Drewnick. During Nicole’s official visit -- the first time the two interacted with one another -- Rockwell couldn’t help but notice their similarities. When Sydney stayed at an apartment with Nicole for a few days during move-in, the two built a close friendship. 

“The more I’ve gotten to know [Drewnick], the more I’ve gotten to love her because she is the most kindhearted person and she always has something positive to say,” Palazzolo remarked. “She keeps us all accountable as well on the court and off the court, and she is just like a ray of sunshine.”

“[Sydney’s] such a key player to our team, and she is such a kind soul that I’m very grateful for,” Drewnick said. “It’s amazing to have a relationship like that on the court and off the court.”

Like Drewnick, Palazzolo has built her volleyball career around relationships. She fell in love with the sport by watching her older cousins play collegiately. Palazzolo knew what she wanted, but she never could have imagined it taking shape like this. At Notre Dame, she plays within four hours of her Michigan hometown, Shelby Township. Family members now attend her matches regularly. And they appeared in droves when the Irish visited Toledo two Sundays ago.

“Going through it, I always had my eyes set on playing volleyball in college,” Palazzolo said. “Now that we’re here in the ACC, my dreams are coming true, and it’s so surreal to come into the arena every day and appreciate where I’m at. I try to always remember that it’s a privilege to be here, and I try to give my best effort every day because of that reason.”

During her two years at High Point, Palazzolo received all the accolades she could rack up. Big South Freshman of the Year, Player of the Year and All-Tournament MVP highlight the list. And in South Bend, Palazzolo has already made waves. A career-high-tying 25 kills helped the Irish to a dramatic victory over Oklahoma on Sep. 9. Her 172 kills put her on pace to best her remarkable 443 kills from a season ago. But even as the numbers pile up, Palazzolo keeps herself grounded with a simple approach.

“[It’s] the positivity I try to bring to the court because volleyball is just a game and it’s only here for so much of our life,” Palazzolo said. “So I just try to take every point with a grain of salt and keep it consistent.”

Leading the charge against Louisville

As conference play heightens, the middle third of the season offers Notre Dame the chance to prove itself in the landscape of college volleyball.

“We have every opportunity to go out there and compete and be the best team,” Drewnick said. “There’s nothing stopping us, but that has to start with our training in the weight room. It has to start in practices. It has to start with how we’re communicating with each other on and off the court. So being very open about that from the start - if we want these things which we’re capable of getting, it’s got to start now.”

For the Irish, the now is embodied by the fifth-ranked Louisville Cardinals. After sweeping Notre Dame twice last season, the Cards head to South Bend with an 11-1 record. Perennially among the sport’s elite under Dani Busboom Kelly, Louisville has captured the ACC crown in each of the past three seasons, clinching last year’s title at Notre Dame. That achievement would lead to a second consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance last season. And this year’s squad certainly has the makings of achieving more success.

Despite losing last season’s ACC Player of the Year (Claire Chaussee), Setter of the Year (Raquel Lazaro) and Defensive Player of the Year (Amaya Tillman), Louisville has recycled talent seamlessly. Cara Cresse boasts the conference’s top hitting percentage (.481), while Anna DeBeer ranks third with 3.76 kills per set. And atop the service ace leaderboard sits Brigitta Petrenko, who averages 0.67 per set. It’s a lot to plan for, but the Irish know they can compete.

“The start of non-conference has been crazy because our team will sit and watch all these upsets happen,” Palazzolo said. “And I think that’s given us so much inspiration that any team can do anything if they put their minds to it. No matter the opportunity on the other side of the court, we’re always gonna be giving it our best.”

Notre Dame’s next chance to provide inspiration begins Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Purcell Pavilion. The ACC Network will carry the meeting between the Cardinals and Irish, their 47th in series history.

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