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Notre Dame volleyball team advances to Dig For Life Final Four with young core

Leading Notre Dame volleyball to early success and in several statistical categories have been sophomore twin sisters outside hitter/defensive specialist Brie Rubel (digs), bottom left, and middle blocker Kate Rubel (kills and aces). Photos by Jay Forness

Over the weekend in the 2023 Dig For Life Challenge, the Notre Dame volleyball team played a total of seven matches after hosting back-to-back games earlier last week.

The Bulldogs (7-2-2) advanced all the way to the final four after winning two-straight, three-set games to reach the semifinals. That’s where Notre Dame fell 2-0 (25-19, 25-22) to this year’s Dig For Life Champions and the winners of four of the last five Class 1 state championships Advance (11-0-2).

“Advance is always a good game — I always like seeing them just because of the style of volleyball they play,” Notre Dame head coach Meridith Brinkmeyer said. “They play quicker and are very smart and intense, so I’m very proud of how the girls hung in there all day.”

Entering the matchup, Notre Dame was coming off a 2-1 win over St. Vincent in the quarterfinal round. The Bulldogs even used their warmup period before the match with Advance to eat, hydrate and rest to have some more energy in what was their final match of an eight-plus hour day on the court.

“I asked them, ‘Do you want to warm-up hitting,’” Brinkmeyer said. “They replied, ‘Can we just get some sugar and food in us?’ I look down and see Kate [Rubel] sticking a whole piece of pizza in her mouth, and I’m like, ‘Well, OK, I’m fine with that.’ I know they’re exhausted, but I know we had a fun day.”

Along with its victory over St. Vincent, Notre Dame picked up a win over SEMO Conference foe Cape Central at 2-1 in the first round of bracket play. The Bulldogs handled Dexter and Winona both by scores of 2-0, while tying with Fredericktown and Bell City to finish Dig For Life 4-1-2 overall.

Leading the way throughout Dig For Life for the Bulldogs was their returning leader in kills sophomore middle blocker Kate Rubel. She’s also been playing in the back row more this fall (fourth-most digs at 88), as well as proving to be one of Notre Dame’s top servers with a team-high 18 aces.

Rubel is currently the only Bulldog to have recorded triple-digit kills so far, sitting at 129 kills with a .308 hitting percentage. Kate recorded double-digit kills versus St. Vincent (16), Cape Central (14), Dexter (12) and Advance (10), while she also led Notre Dame in aces versus Fredericktown (five), Winona (three) and Dexter (two).

Rubel is rotating between the front and back row with fellow middle blocker junior Courtney Tatum, who paces Kate in kills (90) but leads the way in total blocks at 31 to Rubel’s 20. Tatum has been a standout in the back row as well, leading the Bulldogs in serve receptions (135) and is second in digs (150).

Notre Dame junior middle blocker Courtney Tatum currently leads Notre Dame in total blocks and serve receptions.

At the net, Tatum had not one but two five-block performances in this year’s Dig For Life Challenge, which came against Bell City and Cape Central. Courtney also paced Rubel in kills for both games.

“When we’re struggling to get kills out of the front row, it’s huge for [Rubel or Tatum] to get a big kill out the back row,” Brinkmeyer said. “You see a lot of teams subbing in and out, but I literally sub one person in to play back row. Everybody besides Kendyl [Slinkard] has played every point of every set.”

One first-year starter who has burst onto the scene is sophomore defensive specialist Brie Rubel, who also plays in the front row at outside hitter. While Notre Dame doesn’t have a designated libero, Brie has recorded the most digs for the Bulldogs with 151 and is second in serve receptions at 128.

Rubel had double-digit digs in six matches as she came up with 17 versus St. Vincent, 16 against Advance, 15 versus Cape Central and Dexter and 14 in the win over Bell City. Brie produced her most serve receptions at Dig For Life against Advance in the semifinals with 16.

Even though she only stands at 5-foot-9 compared to the likes of Notre Dame’s 6-footers Kate Rubel and Tatum, Brie has managed to lead the Bulldogs in total blocks a few games.

“Brie is a very smart player, and she can jump for how short she is. She gets up there and gets a lot of hands on balls,” Coach Brinkmeyer said. “It may not necessarily always be a block to the floor, but she gives our defense a chance by slowing the ball down in some way. She did a lot of good things defensively for us this weekend.”

Outside of those three, sophomore setter Claudia Jones led the Bulldogs throughout Dig For Life in assists, of course, and currently sits at 277. Notre Dame’s only senior on the team outside hitter/defensive specialist Aubrey Neumeyer is third for the Bulldogs in kills (60) and digs (132).

“I always feel like they’re older than what they are,” Brinkmeyer said. “It’s exciting what they pieced together here and really responded well the whole weekend.”

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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