Tigers eye title repeat

Notre Dame-Belmont seniors Tammy Byrne, second from left, and Katie Smoot keep it loose by laughing it up at Thursday’s volleyball practice at Moore Pavilion. The two are serious talents though, as evidenced by the 2015 state championship banner hanging overhead.

As Notre Dame-Belmont’s dominant outside hitting tandem of Katie Smoot and Tammy Byrne return to the court for their senior season, one thing is clear — their decorated volleyball careers are just getting started.

The NDB Tigers are coming off a historic season in which they brought home the program’s first-ever state championship banner, reveling in the 2015 Division IV title game with a sweep over Laguna Blanca-Santa Barbara last December.

Smoot and Byrne are primed for a run at a repeat performance. And with the Tigers starting a rigorous preseason tournament schedule with their season opener Aug. 27 at Spikefest in Milpitas, the buzz surrounding the quest to repeat is palpable during this their first official week of practice.

“I think there’s definitely a possibility,” Byrne said. “And if we work really hard at every practice and take advantage of every rep, we’ll be able to repeat. But it’s going to take a lot of heart.”

Heart has been one of the pillars of the NDB volleyball program since Jen Agresti took over as head coach in 2012. It was the following season that Smoot and Byrne walked into Moore Pavilion as freshmen with all the talent in the world. Agresti knew she had something special in the duo and named them both to the varsity squad as freshmen.

“I felt they were going to be the future of the program,” Agresti said. “But a lot of freshmen come in with a lot of talent and it’s no guarantee. It’s the dedication they put in that determines their future.”

After a summer committed to the club volleyball circuit — pairing to help the Encore 17-Navy team, also coached by Agresti, to a trip to junior nationals — Smoot and Byrne look like they’re in the best shape of their lives.

Both have plenty of motivation. Not only are they hungry for another state-title run, each have high ambitions to excel in the Division I collegiate ranks next season. Smoot has already committed to the Pac-12 program at University of Arizona, while Byrne is on the verge of deciding between several options in the coming weeks.

Smoot knows she will have her work cut out for her playing in the powerhouse Pac-12 conference that had as many as eight teams ranking in the top 25 last season, including Arizona. But on a team that doesn’t see too many breakout freshmen, the dynamic 6-1 outside hitter wants the opportunity to contribute from Day One.

“I’m working to see the floor as a freshman,” Smoot said. “That’s the goal.”

Smoot’s commitment to the game was apparent over the summer. In addition to playing for Encore, she helped run volleyball camps at the club, based at the Foundry in Redwood City, for middle school players. She also had a busy season on the beach volleyball circuit; among her partners was current NDB sophomore outside hitter Kendal Peters, who has swiftly gained notoriety as something of a beach superstar.

Byrne’s summer was much of the same, working camps and dedicating to fitness, with the exception of not playing beach volleyball. The 5-11 smasher chooses to focus on the indoor game, having gotten out of the beach ranks while the getting was good, after taking down Smoot in the one and only time the two have ever competed on the beach.

“I’ve beat her once,” Byrne said with Smoot standing right there. The playful comment set off a dialogue that was as fluid as the way the two communicate as volleyballers on the court.

“It was the most annoying game of my life,” Smoot said, issuing a challenge for a rematch.

“Nah,” Byrne said. “I’m going to take the win while I’m ahead.”

The two aren’t nearly as cavalier towards the prospect of hanging another state championship banner at Moore Pavilion this season. While they know when to keep it loose in between reps at practice, each can crank up the intensity on a dime.

The Tigers team tends to follow suit, though the majority of the 12 players on roster — 10 of who are returning from last season — know the drill. Still, NDB has some big shoes to fill with the graduation of star libero Katarina Warburton, who ranked second in the West Catholic Athletic League last season with 537 digs.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Agresti said of replacing Warburton. “But we have good players and defenders stepping in. So I’m confident they’re going to do well.”

Kat Ho, a 5-3 junior, headlines a trio of players who stand to wear the libero’s jersey this season, along with 5-8 senior Gianna Susa and 5-4 freshman Delaney Walsh. With this group, Agresti expresses complete confidence.

Agresti said the biggest variable for NDB going forward is with the Tigers changing leagues and the overhaul of the entire state volleyball postseason. NDB will no longer be in the WCAL, converting to the West Bay Athletic League this season. Also, the California Interscholastic Federation will be instituting an Open Division for volleyball this season, making the format more akin to that of football and basketball.

Because of the unknown talent waiting in a possible date with Open Division destiny, Agresti is apprehensive about committing too much confidence towards the possibility of another state title run.

“I can’t say we’re going to hang another banner confidently,” Agresti said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to shake out.”

Hanging the 2015 state banner is something that will stand forever though. NDB celebrated the honor in style last season. Not only did the school hold a championship parade that travelled a course through all three Notre Dame campuses in the days following the historic victory. NDB also held a formal unveiling of the championship banner at the end of the school year at a banquet held in Moore Pavilion.

“Everyone went nuts,” Agresti said. “It was very cool.”

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