By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer
Wednnesday, the UNH volleyball team boarded a plane and flew to Seattle, Washington where they will take on No. 3 ranked Washington in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats find themselves in a situation similar to last year, but with one year of tournament experience and last years sweep by USC behind them, UNH volleyball head coach Jill Hirschinger’s squad hopes to find itself on the road for a bit longer than just one weekend.
Since her arrival to Durham in 1996, Hirschinger has a long list of accomplishments. She has led the Wildcats to five America East titles, eight 20-win seasons and has been named America East Coach of the Year five times.
This season, Hirschinger has added to her already impressive resume, picking up her 700th career win on Sept. 20 and leading the Wildcats to their second-straight conference championship. But even after achieving that much, Hirschinger said she does not define her career with wins. She coaches to help her players succeed.
“I’m coaching because I want my players to be successful, and because I like seeing people become the best that they can be,” Hirschinger said. “And that’s my biggest thing is watching kids come in here as freshmen and leave here as better people when they graduate.”
Hirschinger established a new culture with the Wildcats from day one. Her coaching philosophy is one that has helped her be so successful, as well as how she is such an endearing figure to her players. A big part of that philosophy has nothing to do with volleyball.
The longtime coach has a sense of humor that eliminates the possibility of a dull moment: Hirschinger’s wittiness helps players like co-captain Katie Sattora feel at ease, even during stressful and chaotic moments.
“A lot of people think she’s so serious, but she’ll come into the locker room pregame and just start cracking jokes,” Sattora said. “It’s such a light atmosphere and it’s so awesome. It just calms everyone down and makes everyone feel so comfortable and ready to go.”
You would not have to be around the team very long to witness Hirschinger’s humor. Every day at practice, the team participates in a drill called “shots to spots,” when hitters work on locating off-speed shots toward black rubber bands located all over the court. Before the drill earlier this season, Hirschinger approached co-captain Tori Forrest and made light of the rubber bands scattered everywhere.
“She comes over to me and she goes, ‘This is like my driveway after it rains,’” Forrest said. “I had no idea what she was talking about. And she was like, ‘Worms, worms! After it rains, all the worms are in my driveway and I have to tip-toe around so I don’t step on them.’ So now we call the drill Jill’s Driveway.”
Setter Taylor Dunklau said her coach brings a natural humor without even trying.
“Her sense of humor is incredible,” Dunklau said. “It’s so funny, because sometimes you don’t know if she’s joking or not so you don’t know if you can laugh. But she usually is.”
Another unique part of Hirschinger’s coaching style is her undivided attention to her players’ well being. Every Sunday night, each of the team’s 16 players sends a journal-style email to Hirschinger detailing whatever is on their mind.
“It can be about anything,” Forrest said. “It could be about your personal life. It could be about school. It could be just about volleyball. Whatever you want it to be. I think this is a really unique thing.”
Hirschinger responds to the emails by the next day. It is her way of keeping track of how her players are doing outside of volleyball, as she strives, above all, to influence them as people.
Between coaching responsibilities and recruiting, Hirschinger theoretically does not have time to devote to her players’ personal lives. However, the fact that her coach is willing to consistently make that effort tells Sattora a whole lot about her coach’s priorities.
“It gives people a safe place to just talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Sattora said. “Not everybody is as comfortable going to the office or going to talk to the coaching staff. So the emails really give a safe place for people to vent, say all great things, or whatever is going on in their lives. Not many people do that, and I think it is really cool that she does.”
Not only is Hirschinger’s compassion consistent for her players, it is also unconditional. The coach makes a point of encouraging her players when they make mistakes. No matter the magnitude of the mistake, she continues to demonstrate a light-hearted joking ability.
“If you make a mistake and she talks to you and tells you what you did wrong, you know not to take it personally,” Sattora said. “You know that it’s coming from a good place. And that no matter what happens during the game, she still loves you. She still cares about you.”
Hirschinger’s unfazed presence is something Forrest said does wonders for the Wildcats. During chaotic and desperate moments when the team is searching for momentum, players can feel at ease knowing their coach has their back. More specifically, they are comfortable taking risks with Hirschinger in charge. The coach reiterates to her players that volleyball is a game of mistakes.
“She’s very good about being focused on the next point,” Forrest said. “You can’t change it, so you might as well let it go. Having that light-hearted nature and spirit in her keeps us levelheaded when the pressure is on. We can laugh.”
Forrest continued praising Hirschinger’s coaching style and how it has brought out the best in the team.
“Jill just brings out the best in people that she’s around because she gives you 100 percent of herself,” Forrest said. “She comes in every day ready to give you all that she has to offer that day and in doing so, I think she gives other people including her players and coaching staff, the ability to do the same.”
Forrest, nearly teary-eyed, went further and discussed Hirschinger’s influence on her as a person.
“So we’ve all really grown together as one unit, but in different ways we all shine,” Forrest said. “I think she does a really good job of giving people the ability to do that.”
Now in her 36th season coaching collegiate volleyball, Hirschinger has yet to reference the “R” word — retirement. When asked about how much longer she wants to coach, she answered with the same liveliness and enthusiasm she has demonstrated her entire career.
“Forever. I don’t know. You never say never. No timelines. Whenever it is not fun or I just don’t like it, I’ll walk away. But right now, I just love it and I’m having fun. I’m not done yet. I still have things I want to do.”