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Minium: Improving ODU Volleyball Team Tests its Mettle with Tough Non-Conference Schedule

Keith Lucas

NORFOLK, Va. – Notre Dame is one of those women's volleyball programs that just about any coach would love to have on their home schedule. So how did Old Dominion coach Fred Chao manage to snag the Fighting Irish for three games in Norfolk?

He used his connections.

It seems that for a time, Chao roomed with Jeff Rockwell, who then began dating Salima Davidson.

Jeff and Salima eventually got married a few years later and in January, Salima Rockwell, the three-time All-American at Penn State, was named head coach at Notre Dame.

"As soon as she was named head coach, I began asking her to come play us in Norfolk," Chao said. "After a while, she said to me, 'How can I refuse?' "

She didn't and Notre Dame is in Norfolk this week to play in the Quest for the Crown Tournament.

ODU (2-4) opens its home season tonight against Navy at 6:30. The Monarchs take on Notre Dame Friday night at 7 and then East Carolina Saturday at 3.

In other matches, ECU and Notre Dame meet at noon and then ECU takes on Navy at 5 on Friday. On Saturday, Navy and Notre Dame square off at noon.

When Chao was filling out his schedule he decided his young team needed to be challenged with a rugged non-conference schedule.

Two weeks ago, the Monarchs lost to Michigan, Utah Tech and Northern Arizona at the Northern Arizona Invitational. They didn't play particularly well, but Chao said the road trip did much to help the team bond.

The Monarchs then traveled to Blacksburg last weekend and beat Marist and Coppin State each by 3-1 scores before losing to the Hokies, 3-0.

"What we saw at Northern Arizona were teams that play all the time at the level we do only in spurts," he said. We chose to play a difficult schedule. In the long run this will pay off for us."

Chao is hoping for large crowds this weekend. He scheduled Navy because of the large Navy population in Hampton Roads.

"The University is very connected to the military and we really want to engage with the military community," he said.

ODU won an exhibition against UNC Wilmington three weeks ago, and Chao was shocked the ODU Volleyball Center was more than half full.

"We didn't put anything out on social media until the day before the exhibition," he said. "It was great to see such a large crowd.

"We're hoping to do as well this weekend."

This is ODU's first year in the Sun Belt Conference and that frankly gives the Monarchs a better shot of winning a league championship and going to the NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky is a perennial powerhouse in Conference USA and Rice is not far behind.

Coastal Carolina, Texas State and South Alabama have been traditional powers in the Sun Belt and James Madison, which is also in its first Sun Belt season, was 17-7 a year ago.

"Madison has been consistently good," Chao said. "We haven't seen most of the teams in the Sun Belt so we've got a lot to learn this season.

"But I do know that the talent level in the Sun Belt is quite good. It will be a challenge."

Playing in just their third season, the Monarchs may not be ready to compete for a championship but they are definitely improved over last season. Chao's recruiting each season has successfully raised the talent level, as many newcomers have won starting roles over returning players.

Myah Conway leads ODU with 40 kills and Hailey Duncan (33) and Bailey Burgess (31) are close behind. Burgess is a 6-foot-1 freshman from Raleigh, North Carolina. Gerren Tomlin, a freshman from Statesville, North Carolina, has 28 and Kira Smith, a sophomore from San Diego, California, has 21.

Teresa Atilano, the 6-foot-1 sophomore who is also from San Diego, has 117 assists. She and Burgess made the Virginia Tech Invitational All-Tournament team. Ashlynn Belcher, a freshman from Marengo Ohio, is second with 57.

Jamie Bissmeyer (59) and Anna Burkhardt (49) lead the team in digs and Belcher adds 21.

Returnees from last season include Olivia De Jesus, Ashley Peroe, Camilla Tamburini, Madeline Rudd, LeeAnne Lowery, Valentina Culaciati. Tessa Mati was added as a transfer from Kansas State.

Kate Ayre and Jennifer Olansen are freshman from Virginia Beach.

After a Sept. 13 match at Norfolk State, and then a stop at the VCU Invitational (in which the Monarchs meet North Carolina in the first round), ODU opens its Sun Belt schedule at home against Marshall Sept. 22 and Sept. 23. Ironically, ODU and Marshall were Conference USA rivals.