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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Irish find resilient wins in Rockwell's second season, building hope for 2024

Impact transfers Palazzolo and Drewnick help Irish to hot start, gritty ACC wins

When Salima Rockwell took over the volleyball program in January 2022, making her the seventh head coach in Notre Dame’s program history, she vowed to “build … [a] legacy” within the program. In her second season, she came closer to this goal.

Before the season started, Rockwell dipped into the transfer portal and received the commitment of two players, Sydney Palazzolo and Nicole Drewnick. These players brought NCAA Tournament experience to a team that has yet to make the tournament since the spring 2021 season, which was in response to COVID-19. 

Palazzolo transferred from High Point University, where she led the Big South in kills and service aces. Rockwell noticed her drive and talent from the moment she stepped onto campus. 

“Sydney came in ready to get after it,” Rockwell said. “She is such a talent because she can do everything. She can pass, play great defense and attack.”

Early in the season, Palazzolo proved to be a significant reason why the Irish were able to find success. The junior became a six-rotation player for Rockwell’s staff, leading the junior to play in every set for Notre Dame. While her defense shined (2.08 digs per set), her attack ultimately proved to be the difference maker. She led the team in kills per set with 3.85, placing her second in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)  behind Miami’s Grace Lopez. The transfer made up 30% of Notre Dame’s points on the season, scoring 461.5 points out of the team’s 1,537.5. 

Palazzolo flourished on the attack throughout the season due to Nicole Drewnick, a fellow transfer from Georgia Tech. The graduate student became the primary setter for the Irish, leading the team in assists per set at 8.49, ranking seventh in the ACC. Drewnick was the cog of the Notre Dame attack through her understanding of the game.

“It’s her volleyball IQ that separates her from other setters,” Rockwell said. 

The season started hot for Notre Dame, with the Irish winning six of their eight non-conference matchups, taking a five-set thriller against Oklahoma inside Purcell Pavilion early in September. Notre Dame proved its place among the country's top volleyball conferences, making it a force to be reckoned with.

However, as the leaves began to change, so did the Irish in the heart of conference play. The Irish were 8-2 heading into the final week of September and a tilt with No. 5 Louisville. However, the team began to lose its rhythm, resulting in a three-match skid. 

“The team seemingly was in its head and was losing matches we shouldn’t,” Rockwell said. “It became hard for everyone. It's frustrating because they don’t know how to fix it, and we were doing everything possible to get them in a mentally good spot.” 

Two days after suffering their third consecutive loss to Duke, the Irish found themselves down again, this time in a 2-0 deficit to the Tar Heels of North Carolina heading into the third set. While it appeared as though the Irish would once again drop another conference match, something changed in the huddle. 

“There was a shift in attitude and mentality. It was one [a match] knew they could go get,” Rockwell said. “They talked about relaxing and enjoying the process.” 

The team would reverse sweep North Carolina, winning 25-12, 25-16 and 15-10 over the final three sets and changing the tide for the Irish. 

“It was cool to see this happen on someone else’s court when we struggled after losing the last couple,” Rockwell said. “It allowed us to get in a better place.”

The Irish followed up their win with another, beating Virginia 3-1 in South Bend. However, the good times would soon come to an end as the Irish began a nine-game losing streak, taking on the conference’s best, such as Miami, Pitt and Wake Forest. 

It looked as if, heading into Senior Night to take on an NCAA Tournament-hopeful Wake Forest team, Notre Dame would end the season without a win since the first week of October. Yet a change in mentality again proved to be the difference-maker for the team. 

After losing the first two sets, Notre Dame, as it did in North Carolina, changed its mindset and dug deep, winning the next three sets against the Demon Deacons. In doing so, the Irish played spoilers, ending Wake Forest's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament. 

“I remember that feeling,” Rockwell said. “We, the staff and the team, were pleased with the win. It was a huge win for us.” 

The win was extra special for Rockwell’s team as it could get the job done on its own court and in front of its own crowd. 

“It's fun to come back like that anywhere but certainly at home in front of our fans,” Rockwell said.  

In year two, Rockwell emphasized getting the fans into the arena to watch her team battle. Through poster and theme nights and welcoming in the newfound cheering squad of the Highlanders of Duncan Hall, Rockwell saw a 50 percent increase in attendance, an increase she looks to expand on in the years ahead. 

“I feel confident that we can get where [Notre Dame] women’s basketball is. There is no reason why we can’t fill Purcell,” said Rockwell. “We will continue to grow and improve a product on the floor that people want to see and support.” 

For the Notre Dame faithful, there should be plenty of reasons to pack the seats in 2024, three being that the Irish return their three most impactful student-athletes in Palazzolo, freshman outside hitter Ava Lange and senior libero Hattie Monson, who returns for her final year of eligibility, making year three of Rockwell’s tenure one to watch.