When the St. John’s women’s volleyball team traveled to South Bend to square off with Notre Dame on Friday, there was just one thing on their minds: putting the season away for good.
A Red Storm win would make them Big East regular season champions for the third consecutive year as well as the No. 1 seed going into the Big East tournament next weekend.
And in a raucous Joyce Center, with a majority of the 1,591 Fighting Irish fans taking part in a “White-Out the Storm” night, the Red Storm faced their most daunting task of the season.
The Red Storm knew that being in first-place came with a target on your back. Notre Dame knew that they were going to have to play their best game of the season to pull off the upset. But when all was said and done, the Red Storm were the victors in a five-set thriller (25-17, 18-25, 16-25, 25-19, 16-14).
“I think it was our most rewarding victory,” head coach Joanne Persico-Smith said. “We knew that they were going to be ready for us and we know how hard it is to play at Notre Dame.”
Once the first set took shape and the Red Storm opened up a ten-point lead late, the match began to look like the typical rout everybody has grown accustomed to seeing from the Storm. Casie Brooks was on her way to a double-double, Valeria Kovaleva had four aces and Darlene Ramdin picked up three kills.
Then, in the second set, everything changed. The momentum swung away from the Red Storm and lay in the laps of Notre Dame. They found themselves unable to hit around the block and uncharacteristically allowed Notre Dame to have a .321 hitting-percentage while only hitting .029.
“We went into the [second] game feeling comfortable,” Persico-Smith said. “And you can never be comfortable.”
The Red Storm were unable to catch lightning in a bottle during the third set as they attempted to take back the momentum they once had. The team became visibly frustrated, and perhaps the most telling sign was when Kovaleva kicked the ball into the stands, resulting in one of two yellow cards drawn on the day against the team.
“I was just a little bit frustrated,” Kovaleva said. “And it just all happened to be around me.”
Even with all the frustration that was being shown on the court, this team made the necessary adjustments and refused to go down without a fight.
“They were real prepared for us,” Kovaleva said. “They knew our go-to hitter. And they are pretty tall so it was challenging.”
The Red Storm came out in the fourth set, knowing it was win or go home, and they played like it. The score was tied ten times and the lead changed hands three times before the Storm were able to rattle off a late 5-2 run to force a fifth and decisive set.
“The turning point was when we won that fourth game,” Persico-Smith said. “It went into the fifth game, it was 0-0 and we were back to playing good ball.”
The fifth set was as close as the fourth, but the Red Storm never relinquished the lead despite Notre Dame tying the score on five separate occasions.
“It was really a great win,” Persico-Smith said. “We really fought through that and we rose up and the girls just hung tough.”With the victory, the Red Storm are now 12-1 in Big East play and with everything wrapped up, there is still plenty to work on before the Big East tournament begins next Friday in Pittsburgh.
“We still need to improve a couple of things for our future matches to go smoothly,” Kovaleva said.
“We need Darlene [Ramdin], and Kun [Song] and Chen [Chen],” Persico-Smith said. “That’s going to be the difference whether we move forward. We need all six people to keep learning new shots, working on their game.”
The Red Storm will look to end their regular season on an up-beat with a win at DePaul on Sunday.