The last time the Cape Notre Dame volleyball team won a district championship was five years ago under the Bulldogs former head coach Tara Stroup. In Meredith Brinkmeyer’s three seasons at the helm, Notre Dame reached the district title match once in 2018 and fell to Ste. Genevieve.
The Bulldogs earned a first-round bye in last season’s district tournament despite losing two hitters to season-ending injuries, which were 2020 graduate Alexa Clark, who now plays collegiately at McKendree University, and senior outside hitter Abigail Hulshof. Notre Dame fell to a Dexter team in the district semifinals that went on to be beat by Perryville for the 2019 Class 3 District 1 Championship.
Notre Dame finished 18-10-6 overall last season and return players like junior outside hitter Rylee McClintock, junior setter Sarah Brennan and senior libero Delaney Dohogne. McClintock led last year’s team in kills (201), digs (203) and aces (30) as a sophomore.
“Rylee has been with us since her freshman year, and she’s only a junior, so I’m excited to have her for two more seasons,” Brinkmeyer said. “The biggest improvement is her consistency. You’ll get that the more they play and older they get because I remember her freshman year — she always just wanted to kill the ball as hard as she could.
“Now she’s realized, ‘Hey, I don’t have to swing at it 110%. I can fake it up or I can tip it and still get a kill that way.’ She’s just become a very smart player and has gotten more consistency in the things she does whether she’s in the back row or front row.”
As the team’s setter last year, Brennan finished with a total of 691 assists along with 236 service aces (third overall on team) and 127 digs (fourth). Brennan also came up with 15 aces and 14 kills on top of her setting duties.
“Having her have that experience last year setting that 5-1 — she was coming off of a knee injury in the summer last year,” Brinkmeyer said. “You can just tell she’s moving better, jumping better and got to experience that leadership role. I think she’s going to carry over to this season as well, so it’s exciting to see it all come together.”
Dohogne served as a defensive specialist last season and will take over at libero this season for 2020 graduate Maggie Eby, who recorded a team-high 252 digs and 257 service aces in her final year. Dohogne finished third in digs with 170 and also produced 238 service aces (second on team).
“Delaney is a very solid person for us back there,” Coach Brinkmeyer said. “I feel like she doesn’t get very frazzled easily, so that’s good. She’s kind of just calm, and she’ll make a play on the ball. When she makes a mistake she’s like, ‘My bad,’ and she’ll get the next one.
“I think she’s going to step into that [libero] role and do an excellent job for us. She works hard when she’s in here, and the effort is there all the time. Half the battle is ‘Get in here, work hard and you’ll see improvement.’”
These players have already experienced disappointment as they were forced to not finish the Jackson Shootout at the SportsPlex this summer due to Notre Dame shutting down sports for two weeks at that time due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Brinkmeyer said her team has brought a level of excitement that has her looking forward to what these Bulldogs can achieve on the court this year.
“I feel very good and very confident, but mainly just excited,” Brinkmeyer said. “There is just so much excitement to be able to even practice, so the energy from that — we get to play volleyball. For the girls, that’s what they want to hear is we get to play still.”
Along with returning a hitter like McClintock, Notre Dame also brings back players to the front row like Hulshof and fellow senior Mary-Catherine Young along with junior Lexi Rubel.
In 2019, Young played in the most sets between herself, Hulshof and Rubel as she recorded 79 kills and 20 blocks. Rubel played in a total of 40 sets while dealing with a lingering injury from summer basketball and still managed to finish fifth in kills with 86 (40.6% kill percentage.)
“With [Hulshof] coming back healthy, she’ll be a strong hitter for us. She’s been working hard hitting out of the middle,” Brinkmeyer said. “If we can keep Lexi healthy, it’ll be good for us, too. I know Mary just mainly played defense last year, but her hitting has improved over the summer.
“They are just kind of really focused, goal oriented and want to enjoy this season. They’re going to put everything on the line for each game because it’s uncertain after that.”
One of the team’s major focuses heading into this season has been blocking shots as Notre Dame recorded a total of 108 (1.4 blocks per set) as a team last year.
The Bulldogs leader in blocks was 2020 graduate Grace Landewee, who recorded 57 her senior year along with 127 kills. Young was second on the team in blocks as McClintock and Rubel paced her with 13 and 10, respectively.
“We tend to always struggle with blocking, so I know we’ve focused on getting better at blocking,” Brinkmeyer said. “But I mean, I feel we’re strong defensively. These girls are going to lie on the floor for a ball — they’re not going to just watch it and let it hit the floor.”
Coach Brinkmeyer said she feels this year’s team is 10 players deep and that she feels comfortable playing whomever on any given night because they are all fighting for time on the court. She wishes all 10 could be on the floor at the same time.
“With any high school sport, you know you’re going to have that game where, ‘I cannot hit, pass or do anything to save my life,’” Coach Brinkmeyer said. “I think it gives not only me but also the team a sense of comfort. ‘So and so can come off the bench at any moment and fill that spot and let them get their bearings back in order.’”
Other players to look out for on the court for the Bulldogs this season include senior outside hitter Mary Dirnberger and juniors setter Claire Jones, outside hitter Brooklyn Greaser and outside hitter Shelby Renner.