By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer
The UNH women’s volleyball team edged Rhode Island in a five-set thriller (23-25, 25-20, 26-24, 26-28, 15-12) during the Holly Young Invitational at Lundholm Gymnasium on Saturday, Sept. 20. The win gave head coach Jill Hirschinger her 700th career victory.
“I surround myself with a good coaching staff and great players. That’s why you get so many wins,” Hirschinger said. “I thought it was a total team effort today.”
The program leader in wins (290), Hirschinger is coaching in her 36th season after spending time at Duke University (1979-83) and Ferris State University (1984-95) before becoming head coach at UNH in 1996. She is one of only 12 active coaches to reach the 700-win plateau.
Associate head coach Stacy Barnett was proud of Hirschinger’s accomplishment. “She’s one of very few coaches to have reached that milestone,” she said.
No. 700 was an instant classic. No lead was safe during the final decisive set that featured nine ties and five lead changes. With the set tied 11-11, the ‘Cats went on a 4-1 run to close out the match. Junior right side hitter Brenna Buckwalter added one of her team-high 15 kills and 10 digs in the final set victory.
Junior outside hitters Tori Forrest and Abby Brinkman also delivered crucial performances on both offense and defense. Forrest, a co-captain, recorded 13 kills and seven digs to go along with Brinkman’s 12 kills and nine digs.
“I thought we really fought today,” Hirschinger said. “We executed extremely well and I thought we worked really hard on defense, and that made the difference.”
Rhode Island, who entered the game with a 9-2 record, captured the first set 25-23. UNH stormed back to win the second and third sets to take a two-sets-to-one lead. The Rams forced the fifth set after winning a dramatic 28-26 fourth set. Rams outside hitter Franki Darnold finished with a game-high 22 kills and 19 digs, and was critical in providing Rhode Island some momentum.
Even with momentum shifting toward Rhode Island, the Wildcats were able to maintain their poise during the fifth set. Sophomore middle blocker Demi Muses and her teammates were not worried, even while facing a stingy Rhode Island team that UNH had not beat since 2007. Muses collected nine kills and 12 digs.
“I wasn’t worried,” Muses said. “We were in our home gym and this is our turf, so we came back and played as hard as we possibly could and took the match. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”
Muses’s resilient approach mirrors that of senior setter Taylor Dunklau. One of the team’s most experienced leaders, Dunklau encourages teammates with hugs and high-fives no matter if UNH won the point or not. Her attitude has spread throughout the entire team and has kept the ‘Cats levelheaded in difficult situations.
“Volleyball is a game of mistakes, so there’s no purpose of getting down about it,” Dunklau said. “I’ve always liked to bring a positive attitude and I think everyone on our team does a great job of exuding positivity.”
The Wildcats’ primary setter, Dunklau finished the game with 49 assists, 11 digs and three kills. Coach Hirschinger preached Dunklau’s importance to her team after the game.
“She did a great job running our offense,” Hirschinger said. “There’s no panic button with Taylor. If she starts getting too serious or overcritical, that’s when we’re really in trouble. She just loves playing.”
After winning her 700th game, Hirschinger smiled for pictures alongside her players and coaches. Her team even posed to form a “700” on the court to commemorate their coach’s accomplishment.
“We could not have asked for a better day for this,” senior co-captain Katie Sattora said.
“This is such a special day for all of us, and it makes it even better being home and during the Holly Young Invitational.”
Following a quick celebration with her team, Hirschinger soon shifted her sights to UNH’s next opponent.
“700 is a career mark, but I always look forward to the next one, which is 701,” Hirschinger said. “That’s going to be the big one.”