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Begin the season as an unranked team, post impressive victories against Top 25 opponents, and the next thing you know, you're considered a legitimate threat to win a national championship.
|Lauren Brewster was the MVP of the Texas-San Antonio Dome Rally.|
The Fighting Irish are 6-0 and already have three victories over nationally ranked opponents. Notre Dame defeated No. 11 Texas at home in its third match of the year, then added victories over No. 8 USC and No. 6 Florida last weekend at the Texas-San Antonio Dome Rally, one of the premier regular-season tournaments on this year's schedule.
Notre Dame lost its first game against the Trojans, and then won nine in a row to finish the tournament as the only undefeated team. The Irish beat a pair of Top-10 opponents in one weekend for the first time in the program's history and became the first team to sweep Florida since 2003.
But as the awards and honors roll in, the Irish know there is a lot to do if they are going to return to the Alamodome at the end of the season.
"We know there is still so much room for improvement," head coach Debbie Brown said. "Each match we've played has exposed more and more of our weaknesses and we know more and more what we need to work on and how we need to get better. We feel like we're going to continue to get better and better as the year goes on.
"If we think we've arrived and we're all that, then we're going to be in real trouble. I think our team knows we need to continue to work really hard and we need to get a lot better. All of the teams we've played are going to get a lot better. It's very early in the season."
It may be early in the season, but Notre Dame's performance has captured the attention of the coaches who vote for the Top 25. The Irish were not ranked in the preseason poll, but they jumped to No. 19 following the victory over the Longhorns. This week, they climbed all the way to No. 8, which marked the largest single-week and two-week moves in the history of the poll.
One voter who was impressed is Florida head coach Mary Wise.
"This was a match against a team that has a chance to go to the Final Four," Wise was quoted in UF's post-match release. "They have all the pieces and are the real deal. They might be a top-five team right now."
Notre Dame has been successful because of its ability to win the big points in close games. With four seniors on the court, the Irish have the talent and the experience necessary to make plays when the outcome of the match is still in doubt.
At the Dome Rally, ND won eight of nine games that were decided by four points or less. Another indication of how close the matches were is that in 10 games, there were a combined 93 ties and 36 lead changes.
"That is one of the things that I absolutely love about this team," senior middle blocker Lauren Brewster said. "We make the plays when we need to. This group of girls has proven to each other and our opponents that when our backs are against the wall, we're not going to roll over. We're going to keep fighting as a team."
Brewster was the most dominating player in the tournament with 52 kills and 18 blocks in just 10 total games. The All-American had 17 kills and seven blocks against USC and came back with 20 kills and seven blocks in the three-game victory over the Gators. That performance led to Brewster being named MVP of the tournament.
Adding to Notre Dame's dominance at the net are senior outside hitter Lauren Kelbley, who was also named to the all-tournament team, and senior middle blocker/opposite hitter Carolyn Cooper. That trio led a defensive effort that averaged 3.9 blocks per game and held its opponents to a .149 hitting percentage.
In the back row, the Irish have senior libero/outside hitter Meg Henican. A two-year captain and three-time monogram winner, Henican set an Irish single-season record for digs as a junior and could become the program's career leader by the end of the 2005 campaign.
"We all played really well as a team," Brewster said. "We made some mistakes, but we stepped it up at the right time."
Kelbley was one of the players who consistently delivered in the clutch. She tied her career high with 25 kills against USC, including two that helped ND overcome a 29-27 deficit in Game 2 and three of the final four kills in Game 3. Against Florida, she ended Game 1 with a kill and closed out the match with a kill and a solo block after the score was tied at 28 in Game 3.
"We've stayed composed at the end of games," Brown said. "We have a lot of confidence in our ability to score points on our serve. Our serving is really tough, our blocking is good and we're playing really good defense behind the block. I think there is just a high level of confidence on the team that we can do it.
"And with five seniors on the team, their experience, leadership and the things they bring to practice every day are huge in terms of getting us to play well in matches. It's not something that just magically happens when you get on the court to play a match. It's the habits we build in the practice gym each day."
Another habit the Irish are hoping to maintain is their success in Texas.
Notre Dame will put its 3-0 record in the Lone Star State on the line this weekend, when the team travels to College Station to play Tulane and LSU. Those matches were supposed to have been played in New Orleans as part of the Sugar Bowl Classic, but Hurricane Katrina made that impossible.
For Brewster and the Irish, there can't be too many trips to Texas in 2005. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the season may end with another trip to San Antonio for the Division I national championship.
Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.