With region tournaments approaching, not many TSSAA volleyball teams seeded outside the top two in the district tournaments are still playing. Probably fewer teams with losing records remain alive.
But the Region 4-AA tournament includes a team that fits both criteria. District 7's third-seeded Notre Dame (12-17), which recently got a starter back, had a magical Wednesday last week and won its district tournament.
The Lady Irish will travel to Livingston and play Upperman in a region semifinal Tuesday, after Signal Mountain plays host Livingston Academy in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. EDT. The championship will be afterward at about 9. Region finalists will advance to Thursday's state sectionals, where winners move on to the state tournament.
Notre Dame coach Tyler Baldanado said she expected 2012 to be a rebuilding year. She needed successors for four graduating starters, including setter and team encourager Alex Guidi.
With new setter Mattie Strozak running the offense, the Lady Irish spent the first half of the season in search of their new identity. Then right before the first regular-season match against Signal Mountain, which the Lady Irish lost on Sept. 20, they lost hitter Stephanie Bouchard to an injury that kept her out the rest of the regular season.
The first week in October was the final week of the regular season and Notre Dame had matches that week with Chattanooga Christian, a team it had beaten 3-2 before Bouchard went out, and Signal Mountain. The Lady Irish lost both.
After the opening round of the district tournament last Monday, which included Notre Dame's 3-0 victory over Sequatchie County, the rest of the competition shifted to Notre Dame. The Lady Irish knew they would have to go through second-seeded CCS and top-seeded Signal Mountain to win the crown, and this time they beat both.
"It was a good day," said Notre Dame senior libero Kylie Gange, who was selected the tournament's most valuable player.
Not only did Notre Dame sweep, it didn't lose a set. Baldanado credited her team for not being passive.
"We need to stay aggressive," she said. "We can't play safe. As a team you don't worry about making mistakes. If you play safe at this level, good teams will take that and smash it right down your throat."
Bouchard, without any practice, played sparingly against the Lady Chargers. Under Baldanado's watchful eye, the coach was convinced she could perform more against the Lady Eagles, and did. Gange said it's easy to play alongside someone of Bouchard's ability, which made welcoming her back on the court a seamless transition.
"She's a good all-around player," the team's other senior, Ellen Sawyer, said of her classmate and team captain. "We're just a young team and everybody's still learning. Stephanie has been there. She's played a lot."
Baldanado said after last week's effort that the Lady Irish could be peaking right now. They may yet finish with a winning record.
"Before, they were playing like individuals," Baldanado said. "Everybody was focusing on their own stats. We're doing a lot better job of playing together."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.