SOUTH BEND — Niele Ivey can’t seem to wipe that smile off her face.
Even now after almost two full weeks of official practices that surely have exposed at least some concerns, even now with some injuries still to sort through, and even now with that unprecedented weight heaped on every coach’s plate of navigating a pandemic — never mind doing it as a rookie coach.
Ivey smiled broadly virtually throughout a nearly 30-minute Zoom press conference Monday afternoon, her first gathering of that kind since the one that she was similarly smiling widely at after being named Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach in April.
“In practice, my smiles, they don’t last the entire practice, I will be honest,” Ivey said of whether her disarming grin is the constant that it seems, “but again, it is a joy to be here. I understand how blessed I am, so I hope it always exudes every moment of every day, especially in practice, (because) I just love being around this team.
“They always put a smile on my face,” Ivey continued of her inaugural club. “We always start the day with something good and we always end with something good. That’s important to me, but these young women mean a lot to me, so it’s easy to have a smile on my face working with them.”
The official work in terms of NCAA-allowed full practices began on Oct. 14, though there were also many online meetings over the summer, and then varying levels of individual and small-group workouts starting in early August.
Working amid COVID-related protocols has been and remains the top priority.
“We’re getting tested every week,” Ivey said. “Right now, we’re very fortunate that we have not had any stoppage of play since we started on August 10th.”
She cited the school’s medical experts for leading the way, as well as the Irish football program.
“They were here early, and they pretty much created the playbook for all the sports teams,” Ivey said. “We’re all fortunate that they were here and did a phenomenal job this summer and carried that over to the beginning of their season.”
The coach said that Notre Dame’s game schedule is still being finalized, but should be known within about a week.
Ivey shared that there will be 20 Atlantic Coast Conference games — a record for ACC women’s teams — but only “four or five” non-league contests for the Irish.
She said ND’s opener will be around “the end of November” and that the conference season will tip Dec. 10.
How many fans will be allowed to attend games, if any, remains up in the air.
“I know (Notre Dame’s) trying to see with our fall sports, with volleyball, how successful that would be with fans,” Ivey said, “so we’ll play that by ear.”
The coach is playing her starting lineup that way, too, even if there are several players who drew high praise Monday.
“Right now, I don’t have a set five,” Ivey said, pointing out that she was not able to see the players in five-on-five until September. “I’m allowing them all to have an opportunity to choose their minutes. Really, it’s in their control. Right now, I’m working on getting the entire team healthy. Once I can have the team healthy, maybe about a couple weeks prior to our first game, I’ll start to establish roles and try working on my starting lineup, but right now, we’re learning and we’re growing and trying to get better every day.”
The 2020-21 Irish include the top five scorers back from last season’s club, the transfer and immediate eligibility of one of the nation’s premier 3-point shooters over the last two years in Dara Mabrey, and an incoming freshman class of five rated No. 3 collectively by ESPN.
Among rotation regulars, only point guard Marta Sniezek has departed from last season’s group that finished 13-18 (8-10 ACC) for ND’s first losing record in 28 years.
“I’m just fortunate to have more depth this year,” said Ivey, a former Irish star and longtime ND assistant who succeeds Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw. “I think that’s really important for this Notre Dame women’s basketball team. We didn’t have that last year, so I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of different combinations.”
Senior center Mikki Vaughn will “hopefully” be full-go in about a month and a half, Ivey estimated.
The 6-foot-3 Vaughn underwent knee surgery shortly after last season ended.
“She’s limited a little bit,” Ivey said. “She’s doing some 5 on 0, going about 50% capacity.”
Vaughn averaged 10.6 points last season, led the Irish in field goal percentage (58.4) and blocks per game (1.6), and finished second in rebounding (7.0).
She and 6-5 freshman Nat Marshall, who is also recovering from knee surgery, are ND’s two tallest players.
Marshall’s not yet practicing with the team in full drills, either.
Meanwhile, Sam Brunelle, ND’s No. 2 scorer last season at 13.9 points per game on the way to ACC all-freshman honors, is “progressing well,” per Ivey, in her recovery from the tendinitis that plagued her both last winter and over the summer.
Mabrey, whose immediate eligibility this season was granted by the NCAA just over two weeks ago, has wasted no time becoming one of the ND’s leaders alongside Vaughn.
“When (the players are) struggling in practice, she’s the first one to bring the group together to get them focused,” Ivey said of Mabrey. “She’s always being vocal, she’s always the one leading in our text threads, just making sure everyone is where they need to be in whatever situation we have off the court. She’s the one that’s my vocal leader.”
The younger sister of current Irish assistant Michaela Mabrey and former ND star Marina Mabrey, Dara averaged 11.5 points over her freshman and sophomore seasons at Virginia Tech, while hitting 155-of-379 on 3-pointers for 40.9%.
She helped the Hokies go 43-21 overall, 17-17 in the ACC over those two years while starting all 64 games.
“I want to play very fast and shoot a lot of 3s, so she’s definitely going to fulfill that role for me,” Ivey said. “She brings the intangibles. She’s tough, she brings a swag, (like) the entire Mabrey family. She definitely brings that energy and confidence, and I think that’s something that’s going to be very beneficial to our team.”
Props for Peoples
Asked which returning player’s improvement has turned her head the most, Ivey didn’t hesitate to name fully recovered sophomore Anaya Peoples.
“Having her back from her shoulder injury and just seeing her development and growth is incredible,” Ivey said of the sophomore who suffered her season-ending injury with 14 games to go last January, but still wound up on the ACC all-freshman team along with teammates Brunelle and Katlyn Gilbert.
“She’s playing at a very high level,” Ivey said. “She’s in better shape, she’s worked on her game. ... She has been an extremely bright spot for me. I’m super excited for her and what she’s going to bring. I think she has incredible potential.”
Peoples averaged 12.6 points last season, and despite being just 5-10, was ND’s top rebounder at 8.1.
Mad over Maddy
Ivey was also asked which freshman has surprised her the most.
She pointed to Maddy Westbeld, the younger sister of Kat Westbeld, a starter on the 2018 national title team.
“She came in with a college body, so I feel like she’s had the easiest transition coming from high school,” Ivey said of the younger Westbeld, listed as a 6-2 forward. “She’s definitely somebody you guys will be talking about later, but she’s had an incredible work ethic.”
Westbeld’s versatility has proven valuable.
“She can play the one through five position,” Ivey said, “and it’s something I need right now, especially with the recovery from a couple injuries with our posts.”
Ivey said that each of the freshmen has “made a great transition into college, and I’m really excited about their potential. They’re getting better every day.”