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Bulldogs' hitters will kill for a set
Notre Dame players vie for the opportunities to put away a point
The Notre Dame hitters know the need for monster hits in warmups.
Trying to impress the opposition is the least of their concerns.
The Bulldogs hitters try to slam hits in warmups to impress one person -- Notre Dame senior setter Shannon Brennan.
"It's pretty much like a competition," Notre Dame senior Allyson Bradhsaw said. "'Look, I'm hitting the crap out of the ball so set me.'"
Junior Kate Edwards makes sure not to waste any swings in warmups.
"It's a lot of pressure because if you don't have that really strong warmup, it kind of leaves that doubt in the setter's mind," Edwards said. "And you've really got to prove yourself in that warmup."
The reason for the spirited Notre Dame warmups and pressure to impress stems from the Bulldogs' lack of a dominant hitter. Notre Dame relies on a balanced attack from all its hitters. There isn't a go-to hitter on this year's team, so all the starters try to earn as many sets as possible.
"We're a lot more balanced this year, which is good," Notre Dame coach Tara Stroup said. "If you have that one person, it's easier for the defense on the other side to set up knowing that person is going to get all the sets. So when we mix it up like we do, I think it makes it harder to defend against us."
Notre Dame features five hitters with at least 125 kills, led by Edwards' 193. Bradshaw is next at 186, followed by Brennan (176), Brooke Bohnert (141) and Amy Wibbenmeyer (127).
"For every warmup, I do watch," Brennan said. "As soon as I hit, I turn around to see how everyone is hitting. If they're hitting good in warmups, that's a good thing. But it doesn't mean that they're going to be like that on the court. Usually they have to prove themselves in the game."
Players said they will notify Brennan when they feel like they're hitting well in an attempt to lobby for more sets.
"I remember there was one game and I had a really good hitting warmup and I said, 'I'm on. Give me the ball. I will put it down,'" Bradshaw said. "That first set, I put it down, and I said, 'I knew it was going to be an on day.'"
Brennan ranks third on the team with 176 kills because she plays a dual role of hitter and setter. She uses that dual perspective to her advantage when dishing out sets. She knows it takes a few qualify sets to really determine if a hitter is on.
"If I give them a really good set and there's maybe one blocker or no blockers and they hit that thing to the floor, then I know that I need to give them the ball," Brennan said. "I've been a hitter before. Sometimes I get a really good kill, the first one I get, the rest of them are ridiculous. I hit them out of bounds or I get blocked. It usually takes three or four good sets and getting it to the ground."
This year's balanced offense is a change from last season's final four team, which took fourth. The Bulldogs relied heavily on Meghan Dohogne last season, especially in key situations.
"Last year, we had a lot of capable people, but Meghan seemed to be our go-to person if we needed to get a kill," Stroup said. "It's always good to have if you have it. In some other sports, you can have that one superstar player and kind of ride them all the way through your season. In volleyball, that's not the case. Even if you do have that one person, they're not always going to be in the front row. You've got to have a team to support that person. I think that's one of our big strengths this year. We have several capable people."
The Bulldogs try to move around the ball to confuse the blockers. Notre Dame's tallest player is 5 foot 9, which means the Bulldogs rarely can hit over the opposition's block. By moving the ball around, Notre Dame tries to face less blocking and tire out its opponent.
"Their blockers are going to have to work harder to see who is being set and they're going to get worn out more because we're going to switch it up on them," Wibbenmeyer said. "We have to do that because we're not as tall as most teams. We don't have the height on our team so we have to have all three hitters ready to hit to try to get them off track."
One of the drawbacks to the spread-out offense is that it can be difficult for players to find a rhythm on offense. Sets can be tough to come by if the first couple don't pan out.
"There's disappointment if you don't get the set and you know you're really on," Edwards said. "But if two people are on, that's never, ever a bad thing. Sometimes it's kind of difficult, but you have to see the bigger picture and know that you're a team and it's not just one person. You're not trying to cushion your own stats. It's about the whole team."
Edwards is quick to point out that she tries to use her other talents on the court when she's not receiving many sets.
"If you're not getting all the sets, you've just got to try to really push on your defense, and when you do the set, make sure you put it to the floor," she said.
It starts with defense
Edwards' mention of defense raises an important point about the Bulldogs' offense. Notre Dame's ability to pass allows the offense to run smoothly. There aren't many balls hit at Notre Dame that the Bulldogs can't dig.
"The defense has been so good this year, which enables us to take more swings," Stroup said. "Our defense is probably overall stronger than our offense. ... If your setter is running all over the place trying to get to the ball and they can't make a good set, some really good hitters can still get a kill. But our defense has allowed our setters to be in better position to make sure that the sets are right on."
Stroup and her assistant coaches stand on boxes at the net and slam shots over the net at the Bulldogs' defense in practice. It's helped Stroup's team deal with powerful hitters and respond with a good swing instead of a free ball.
"It gets really frustrating because we're going for ball after ball," Bradshaw said. "Usually we have to get a certain amount in a row then she'll hit a really hard one that no one can get and then we'll have to start over. It gets us better because we've got to pick them up somehow."
The players agree that junior varsity coach Meridith Medlin hits the hardest, but they know that if they can get a dig and good pass off a Medlin slam, it will increase their chances of running a smooth offense against talented hitters in matches.
"We know that defense is so crucial just to keep us alive," Stroup said.
There's no doubt the Bulldogs' defense will be tested at the Class 3 final four. But if the defense can keep the ball alive and give Brennan a chance to set the offense, there are plenty of options to record the kill.
"We really want to go far this season," Wibbenmeyer said. "It's not just about one person. Maybe next game it will be a different person. You just have to think about the team more."