Jane Horvat | December 6, 2017
If at the close of the 2014 season, someone in the the collegiate volleyball community were to have predicted that the University of Notre Dame’s volleyball program would make a run at the NCAA Championship in the fall of 2017, many would have been skeptical. The Fighting Irish had finished the 2014 season with an overall record of 6-23 and a conference record of 3-15.
The only people who believed in the team’s ability to turn itself around were the freshmen of that 2014 team who wanted more from their collegiate volleyball careers.
Senior defensive specialist Natalie Johnson and her classmates showed a determination early on to lead their team out of the disappointment of the 2014 season and towards future success.
“One of the early days in preseason we sat down together,” explained Johnson. “We said, ‘I know we’re struggling now, but we’re going to be the ones that are going to turn this around. We have to keep working and keep pushing through no matter what because we can be the ones who lead this team.’ We’ve always had our minds set on getting to the tournament and turning the program around.”
The student-athletes had the right attitude moving forward, but it wasn’t until Notre Dame announced in January 2015 that Jim McLaughlin would take over as the new head coach of the program that Johnson and her teammates’ goals seemed to become more attainable.
McLaughlin, the only person to coach both a women's and a men's volleyball team to NCAA titles and a former women's volleyball national coach of the year at the University of Washington, brought a welcome change in mentality and intensity to the Irish locker room. His 25 years of previous NCAA coaching experience and his belief that Notre Dame volleyball could become a top-tier program made it easy for players to buy into his system of teaching.
When he was hired, McLaughlin made his intentions clear.
“We are going to create a winning culture and make the program competitive again. … I can't wait to get to work so that we can help return Notre Dame volleyball to being a program that competes at the highest level," he said.
The 2015 season was one of transition for the Irish. As happens when a new coach comes into a program, the team had to adjust to a new training system, higher expectations and a level of accountability they had not experienced thus far at the collegiate level. While their record remained similar to the previous year (7-25, 2-18 in ACC play), the underlying foundation of the team began to transform into the core of mindfulness and focus that would set up the program for its future success.