Notre Dame Volleyball
Louisville slugger Christina Kaelin’s fiery presence, an old friendship, and London rain re-ignited her career—and the showdown against St. John’s equally impassioned Russian import
by Michael Augsberger
The dark colors she wears while on the road, the bullets she fires at vulnerable pedestrians from behind a fence, her lethal ferocity—they all betray her. They give her away. She’s a serial killer, Notre Dame’s most repeat offender, who fits the usual-suspect profile right down to the psychologically stunting injury.
Those shaded road jerseys were tucked away as she led the Irish volleyballers through a homestand opener that reduced a star player to fits and a veteran coach to exhaustion, their most dramatic performance of the year saved for the finest team in their conference, St. John’s.
On the court she is a ruthless challenger, an authentic left-side hitter. Christina Kaelin blazes with tenacity, built straight from the mold of songs about Queens and Cops, athletes Harmon Killebrew and Doug Gilmour, and Domer-dad Dave “He’s a Killer” Hanson.
And it’s not lost on anyone, from the crowd’s prepubescent girls who reach piercing octaves after her kills to seasoned former teammates. St. Louis University setter Whitney Roth hit to Kaelin during their Louisville grade school days. That was before their high school team, Assumption, topped national polls, way before the buddies parted for prestigious Catholic colleges. “She’s one of the most intense, high-key players I’ve ever played with,” says Roth, who trains with Kaelin over the summers. “I remember when we were 17, playing club at nationals in the quarterfinals. In the fifth game we were down 11-4, and I remember her looking at me, screaming, ‘Set me the ball!’ We ended up coming back and winning.
“Tight matches, she was just like, ‘Set me the ball, and I’ll take care of it.’ That’s just how she was.”
Still is. “I definitely play better when I have a chip on my shoulder,” said Kaelin, thrice a conference weekly honoree this season. “[The passion] comes from the people I’ve played with my entire life. My coaches and my teammates from home are really intense, really competitive.”
It’s tough to imagine a time when things were not so perfectly aligned for Kaelin. She’s athletic! Recorded 24 kills her first collegiate match, three Augusts ago.
Passionate! “She’s not delicate—she wants the ball,” says freshman Kristen Dealy, a soft-spoken but punishing outside hitter, one of four Irish players in double-figure kills against St. John’s on Friday.
Well-rounded! The graphics design major’s artwork hung on former Kentucky Congresswoman Anne Northup’s office wall until she lost her seat in 2006.
Reads like a bio from CatholicMatch.com, if the URL referred to the two-hour-plus volleyball contest between the dogmatically-connected Irish and Red Storm. Domer gents must be taking numbers, looking for dates. But the prevailing notion is that she’s intimidating to approach. Like at the net. Guys—and Big East foes—must fear rejection.
“We’ve had recruits come in and be scared of her,” says classmate Serinity Phillips, a lithe attacker who defends as well as most liberos. The two first met playing for a national team development program as freshmen in high school. “She has no problem with being in-your-face. She wants the ball”—is everyone reading from the same script?—“but she also encourages us to demand the ball the way she does.”
A junior with two years’ more eligibility, Kaelin won’t turn 21 until March, but that hasn’t stopped her shot-gunning from landing her in court—preferably in the deep corner of the synthetic, gold-painted one on the Joyce Center floor. 3.44 times per set, actually, sixth in the Big East. Kills whip from her array of right-handed shots—the type whose bounces cause the helpless dismay of Daniels, Mandy (Eastern Washington libero) rather than the spilling of expensive Daniels, Jack.
And Mandy would know: on Sept. 5 her Eagles beat the Irish 3-1 despite Kaelin’s match-leading 20 kills, one of which salvaged the only Irish set win.
A day later, on Sept. 6, Whitney Roth couldn’t contain her excitement. She called Kaelin to celebrate St. Louis’s upset of perennial powerhouse Stanford, then ranked No. 3. “I was so jealous,” Kaelin said. “I just wanted to be a part of that, and I was so happy for her to accomplish such a huge feat.”
Lifelong friends were rejoicing again, so little removed from a season of trial.
Hardwood in the Joyce Center usually reflects the concentrated overhead lighting fiercely. Tonight, two days before the showdown with St. John’s, the light bounces with less alacrity.
In walks Christina Kaelin, all five feet, 10 inches of her, and none of it intimidating. On the court, perhaps, but not next to it, not tonight. She holds out her left hand as a greeting—the right is wrapped. Could be another injury.
She doesn’t want to re-live that. The 2007 season was lost to Christina Kaelin when she tore the labrum in her right, swinging shoulder during a summer workout.
“The thing is, Christina’s a major competitor,” notes her former club coach, Carrie McCaw. “People relied on her, always, when the game came to the end and they needed to win. The ball would go to Christina.
“So when she got hurt, it was difficult for her not to be able to contribute, very hard to sit on the bench and watch the team play and not be able to assist in any way.”
Especially irksome was the gradual nature of the tear. Before arriving at Notre Dame, Kaelin’s shoulder was healthy as a Churchill Downs thoroughbred around the corner from her home. “A lot of times shoulder injuries are wear and tear,” McCaw said, “and it did happen over time. She played for me the summer before Notre Dame, and she had no nagging. So something must have occurred that year.”
“It started to hurt at the end of freshman year,” Kaelin said. “But I didn’t really think too much of it, thought it was just a sore shoulder. In the spring it got progressively worse.”
She and old friend Whitney Roth arrived back in Kentucky from long college seasons. They went to a gym together. “She was setting me some balls. I took a couple swings, and it was just bringing me to tears.”
Tears accompanying a tear of her labrum rendered the killer powerless. Louisville doctors did the MRI, and the university’s orthopedics team performed the surgery that ended Kaelin’s 2007 campaign.
Whitney was at Christina’s side when it happened and remained there—only a call or text away—to help her through the arduous process of rehab. The two, hectically busy in-season, found much more time to talk when Christina was injured than they had the previous season. “She was very supportive, extremely supportive,” said a grateful Kaelin. “Someone I look up to very much.”
“It was really hard on her not being on the court,” Whitney said, as her former coach McCaw did. “She used that for motivation to get back in shape.”
But northeast of St. Louis, the Irish spirits and win-loss record headed south without Kaelin. Notre Dame finished 15-13 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. Says Phillips, no stranger to fiery court celebrations herself, “We missed her edginess, her competitive spirit. She would have been a huge influence on that team.”
Security guards hint to the few souls left in the arena as the lighting grows more romantic and the night grows older. Sports information director Alan George stops on his way out. “Kaelin’s the type of player that can change a program,” he says. Over his shoulder, a young man begins to shoot hoops on the arena floor, almost in the dark. He takes his first shot. Air ball.
“We have Kaelin last year, and we win five or six more games. And if we didn’t have Kaelin this year?” George’s voice trails off into the void of a barren Joyce Center.
Another air ball from the background answers his query.
The long road back began with Whit and spun toward the Brits. Kaelin credits a six-week seminar in London with high billing in healing her shoulder. There she studied with a couple of teammates in the university’s summer program.
London—the refreshing respite she needed—brought Kaelin a long way from her yearlong slumber and, in fact, from her youthful over-aggression. “They didn’t have a gym over there,” she explained, “so I didn’t take any swings for a month. I just did lifting and conditioning, and I know it sounds weird because I didn’t do anything, but I think that the rest helped it to heal completely.
“I think my shoulder wasn’t totally healed before I went,” she said, “but after I got back it felt tenfold better than it did at the end of the spring semester.” To call her play this season tenfold better would be an exaggeration, but not by much. The junior has improved on her freshman season in every major category, raising her attack average almost a hundred points higher.
Yet her injury and the rehab have refined even her most valuable asset: her fire.
George, the SID, has studied every move of Christina’s injury-plagued year and her return to the lineup since he was appointed prior to the 2007 season. According to him, during her juniors career the killer could take her intensity over the line. “By all accounts I’ve heard, in high school on the court she could really be downright nasty,” he said. “Just screaming at opposing players across the net, referees.”
Christina has done her worst in the past. “Going to my knees, slamming the floor,” she lists. “Yelling at the other team through the net.” Not exactly pleasantries, mind you. She laughs immediately upon invitation to reiterate something, then nods: It’s not repeatable. “But I’ve definitely cleaned it up since high school.”
One of the few Irish to have seen Kaelin at that time, Phillips agrees. “Now she’s bottled her intensity,” said Phillips, “so it’s still intimidating but not…” She has to think of the perfect word. “But not rude. She brings our team an edge, but it’s a classy edge.”
She brought back the edge on Aug. 29, her first match after the surgery. George could feel her nervousness before a win over IPFW in which she posted only two kills and a negative attack average. But for a player Phillips describes as “a riot and outgoing” from the day they met six years ago, the nervousness took all of, oh, twenty hours to diffuse. The next two nights Kaelin notched 24 kills, hitting .480 in the loss to Valparaiso.
They had imprisoned the killer for a year. Now parole was up.
“It gave her a confidence boost,” George said, “that enabled her to realize she actually was over the injury. It was done.”
It was almost done. Two weeks ago Irish coach Debbie Brown put her Louisville Slugger to the test at home against a mediocre Marquette bunch. Following a first set in which Kaelin committed four attack errors, including three in a row, Debbie Brown made like Larry Brown and benched her under-performing star. The team emerged for the second frame with Kaelin right back where she was the previous year—on the pine.
What happened? “Kaelin was playing bad, and so were most of the starters,” Brown told The Observer. “It’s not fair to have our backups sitting when they were playing that poorly.” Yet the backups fared little better, dropping sets four and five as Golden Eagles leading scorer Ashlee Fisher finally managed to beat a staunch Irish block that had quieted her through the opening rounds.
Kaelin responded to Brown’s discipline with eight kills in the third set, a 25-20 Irish win. So, she took you out of the game, Christina? “She did,” the junior recalls, as if hearing a juicy rumor in her Assumption cafeteria, clearly still incredulous, almost indignant. But most impressive wasn’t her stat line—it was her attitude. It wouldn’t have happened in high school, and it may not have happened before her injury. Yeah, she was p----d—she was still p----d, a week and a half later—but she managed her emotions.
“I hate watching from the sideline, and I think I did that enough last year to last me a lifetime,” she said. “Whenever I’m taken out of the game, even now, it just fires me up more. Because I want to be out there so bad.”
But her injury made her reevaluate her sideline contributions and curb her feistiness when she wasn’t in the lineup. Says Kaelin, “From the sideline you have to take on a new role and help out the players out on the court. I learned that last year. Try to pick up strategy, techniques during the game to help out the other hitters.”
That disappointing weekend tightened the strings of their lone match against 1-11 Rutgers the following week, not anymore a foregone conclusion given the loss to sub-.500 Marquette. But Phillips, a 5’11” outside hitter (seven kills, three blocks), and reigning Northeast Regional Freshman of the Year Kellie Sciacca (seven kills, .467) split the spotlight with poor Rutgers play. 38 attacking errors turned Knights first-year coach Jeff Werneke Scarlet in the face, and a school-record, third-set victory margin of 17 points assured the Irish a playoff spot heading into the final weekend. What seed, the only unresolved issue.
Now the Joyce Center is fully lit again. The bright lights ricochet off all the white giveaway T-shirts on this Friday, “white-out” night.
At 11-1, St. John’s game-night roster includes more foreign nationals than their cross-town Ellis Island, which at least partially explains how their play resembles that of the Ryder Cup international teams that dominated the U.S. in the early 2000s compared to the rest of the domestic Big East. Arena music coordinator Beth Hunter could have started her own radio show but in the interest of a 7:05 start settled on playing just one national anthem. “I might play three,” she said with a wink. With three players each from Europe and China, and two from Latin America, the Red Storm had coalesced seven different nationalities and nine straight conference conquests to all but clinch the top seed for this week’s Big East tournament. A win tonight would ice it.
Judging by her 13 kills, perhaps Kaelin, like this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team at her hometown Valhalla Golf Club, felt at home against the invaders. Her right thumb—recall the second injury—was wrapped in tape but a non-issue, probably only a sprain and nothing she wouldn’t soldier though. By Sunday she wouldn’t even need the tape.
Red Storm sniper Valeria Kovaleva, a senior who transferred after her freshman season at St. Peter’s College—that’s in Moscow, Russia—proved more difficult an adversary than any injury. She grabbed the ball to serve at 1-1 in the first and didn’t relent until it was 10-1 en route to a 25-17 rout. “It was a good first set,” said St. John’s 15th-year coach Joanne Persico-Smith in her New Yawk accent.
“Then ND took it away from us with great blocking, great heart, great courage,” she said. The only person to have both Big East Player and Coach of the Year awards on her mantle (1986, Syracuse; 2006, St. John’s) watched as Serinity Phillips strung together a couple of serves to take a 10-3 lead in the second. Persico-Smith’s entire collection of allotted timeouts couldn’t break the momentum. All told, the record showed nine straight points, six from Red Storm errors. 25-18, Irish.
It was then that 8-4 Notre Dame’s defense at the net coagulated. As blocks crippled their attack, the Red Storm offense lost its methodical choreography and any sense of poise. Especially Kovaleva, St. John’s own illustration in intensity.
Their frustration came to a head in the middle of the third. The arena’s youthful patrons would have been better off without the antics of Kovaleva, the senior outside hitter whose short, bright blonde hair only further punctuates her menacing approach. Prompted by 6’3” senior Justine Stremick blocking a string of her spikes, Kovaleva—so distraught, her first words after the match were, “Did I hit negative?”—evoked images of a much younger version of Christina Kaelin.
Out of misguided intensity, she kicked the ball deep into the stands, earning the Russian ambassador to the Queens, N.Y. campus a prolonged chorus of Bronx cheers and a yellow card. “I felt I shouldn’t have done that,” a remorseful team leader, in emotions and kills (3.29 per set), said later. “My teammates look at me, and if I’m frustrated, they become [so], too.”
Her feelings certainly spread like wildfire. Baseline to net, red-clad players showed signs of disgust—Beijing native Kun Song flailing her arms here, setter Casie Brooks jerking back her head there. Stremick, flanked at times by Phillips and Kristen Dealy, controlled the net like a fleet on a coastal blockade through the match’s middle stages, baffling the same Red Storm attackers who ranked 12th in the nation in kills per set. Notre Dame held them under their usual 14.37 in each set, never allowing more than 13. “The team fed off that [blocking],” said Stremick, a senior. “Being able to shut down another player…” She continued, but the words weren’t important. Her blue eyes twinkled, and that’s all that was necessary.
Kaelin’s three kills led the Irish offense in their third-set victory to make it 2-1, her spikes most effective tonight from the outside, aimed at the left, hard with topspin. But early in that frame she displayed the deep-pocketed shot arsenal for which Whitney Roth so admires her. “She is a very smart hitter,” Roth said, “and she can hit all types of shots. To be able as a hitter to hit down-the-line shots and touch shots is very beneficial.” And so at 3-6 Kaelin took the pass from setter Jamel Nicholas and masterfully kissed it to the center of the St. John’s defense, where four prostrate players locked hands trying to revive what was a deceased ball before arrival. Two points later the Louisville hitter, again from Nicholas, opted for a more traditional, power route to set the Irish on a four-point run to 8-7. No doubt she was exhorting her setter to get-me-the-ball—and St. John’s never saw the third-set lead again.
“Kaelin’s a nice player with a great shot down the line,” said Persico-Smith, who holds the endearing habit of tugging at your shoulder when she feels inspired. Everyone she talks to is a long-lost friend. “They got us so far out of it, on the road, on white-out day.”
But ever the sportswoman, Persico-Smith managed to tame not only her own killer but also, somehow, Notre Dame’s. Kaelin would collect five more kills in two sets. Meanwhile, Kovaleva would hit 10 in that span. She emerged a new woman for the fourth set, poised and collected, leaving the 1,591 paying customers wondering precisely what the hell sort of magic Persico-Smith had worked in order to calm her temper. “I don’t say much to Kovaleva,” smiled the coach, with another friendly shoulder tug. “Obviously she’s got a fiery head.”
“I couldn’t change the situation,” said Kovaleva, explaining her sudden but indispensable change of mindset from fragile to resolute. “I just changed my attitude toward it.”
Her team cleaned up its attacking mess—they hit just .030 in sets two and three—and, with a 10-5 run in the middle of the fourth, red-stormed back to tie the match at two sets apiece.
The extra period took extra time to conclude. Notre Dame fended off three match points to tie at 14, but when it mattered, it was Kovaleva who proved why St. John’s brought her all the way from Moscow. She had committed six errors out of nine attempts in that dreadful third set. In the fifth, rival Kaelin’s three scores were not enough. With the match on the line, Kovaleva buckled down, blocked Kaelin’s final stab at 13-10, and notched five kills—match-winner included.
She turned without flourish from the fatal blow, a down-the-left-line, close-range missile. Fist clenched, relieved more than excited, Kovaleva retreated to an emotional team hug at center court. Truly they had toiled for the Big East regular season title, winning this capstone match by the slightest of margins possible in volleyball, two points in the fifth set. “We really earned it,” said Kovaleva, finishing with 17 kills, more than Kaelin’s team-leading 13 despite her loss of sanity in the second and third frames. “One of the toughest matches I’ve ever played. It felt like a championship match.”
Such postseason-like intensity completely drained Persico-Smith, who drudged across the court after the game with high spirits but low fuel. She needed to sit down. Anywhere. The courtside press table did just fine. “You know, my back gives me problems,” she remarked as she looked around the Joyce Center, empty once again. “This is a tough place to win. I’m so proud of my players right now.” She soaked it in—a second No. 1 seed for the Big East tournament in three years.
Very rarely in sport today is there such loyalty. She grew up with little, a stone’s throw from the Jamaica section of Queens where St. John’s sits. Attended St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows. Played collegiately in her Empire State. 15 years of coaching monogamy. No coach deserved it more—the press table seat, or the seed.
Later, Notre Dame’s seed could have fallen as low as seventh, depending on Sunday’s result with Connecticut. As of Saturday the fifth-place Irish didn’t know whether they would play Louisville, Cincinnati, or UConn again. “We want the best spot possible, the easiest road to the finals,” Kaelin said, with more than a hint of urgency. “We need to win this tournament to make the NCAAs. It’s a pretty blatant fact.”
But a higher number when it comes to seeds may not suit the Irish all that poorly. The more seeds they get from Kaelin’s right arm, anyway, the better. Doesn’t matter which seed receives them, either. Any victim will do. She’s a weird serial killer, like that—she’s not particular.
Michael Augsberger is co-sports editor of Notre Dame’s yearbook, The Dome, and play-by-play commentator for the volleyball team on UND.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.