By ANDREW YOURELL
The Wildcats held their home opener in the Lundholm Gymnasium on Tuesday night, playing host to the Bryant Bulldogs. UNH managed to bounce back from a slow start to record a 3-1 victory (19-25, 25-15, 25-22, 25-21) to raise its record to a red-hot 6-2 on the young season.
Head coach Jill Hirschinger believed the slow start had to do with some nervousness early in the match, but the team buckled down in front of a great home crowd and swept the final three sets.
“I didn’t really think we put it together as much as we have, but for our first home game, I’m happy to come out with the win,” Hirschinger said.
UNH took the first point of the first set, but Bryant went on an 8-0 run to pull away from the ‘Cats in the first set. Despite an aggressive comeback that tied the set at 18, the team failed to put the Bulldogs away and went down in the first set.
Galvanized by the slow start, UNH came out firing in the second set, jumping out to an early 12-7 lead before Bryant called for timeout. Following the break, UNH went on an 8-4 run, but the ‘Cats struggled to end the set against the Bulldogs, who clawed back to make the set 21-15. It was the home team’s turn to call timeout, and UNH regained its composure, scoring four straight points to end the set and tie the match at 1-1.
In the final two sets, UNH jumped out to early leads, but again failed to capitalize early, and the Bulldogs fought back to make each set tough.
“Bryant was a scrappy team,” said Hirschinger. “They’re great at two on the block, and that really frustrates a team. I thought they frustrated us.”
With a 12-10 lead in the fourth set, Bryant looked as though it would fight back, when Demi Muses managed to dig a hard hit. Senior co-captain Tori Forrest kept the ball from landing out of bounds, hitting it straight up. The ball ricocheted off the raised basketball hoop, and was returned. UNH later won the point to keep separation from the Bulldogs, which they maintained en route to a 25-21 fourth set win that clinched the match.
Muses and Forrest were two of the stars for UNH, which has now won six straight games after dropping its first two contests of the year to Loyola and Northwestern. Muses led the team with 18 kills and 11 digs, her second double-double performance this season. The junior middle blocker also added four blocks and an ace.
Forrest, the defending America East Player of the Week, tallied nine kills and 10 digs, falling just shy of her fifth consecutive double-double performance. The senior is already off to a great 2015 campaign, having become UNH’s eighth player all-time to record 1,000 kills during a match against Marshall on Sept. 4, 2015.
“I hope that my teammates, past and present, feel as proud of this accomplishment as I do, because I think they’ve directly impacted the success that I’ve had as a hitter,” Forrest said. For her, the accolade is more indicative of a strong team than just a strong individual.
“I’m so thankful that I have a team that supports me as a player, on and off the court,” she said.
With six returning starters, Forrest is likely to add even more kills before the season is done, and with all the potential for improvement that Forrest and her coach see, the season outlook is bright for the two-time defending America East champions.
“We’ve just got to go back to basics, you know, get better as individuals, and get better as a team,” Hirschinger said of how the Bryant match would affect what the team works on before their next match. With coaches, nothing is ever perfect, but Hirschinger is happy with the team’s great start.
“This is probably one of the best starts we’ve ever had at UNH in 20 years of volleyball,” she said. “Beating Wake Forest, an ACC team, and then Marshall, who’s got an outstanding program, we’ve got some really big wins starting out.”
The early success has a lot to do with how well the offense is spreading the scoring out, according to Forrest. While Muses led the team in kills by a wide margin, the ‘Cats had many of their veteran players step up, recording a season-high eight aces in the matchup with Bryant. Muses had one, as did senior Abby Brinkman. The other six came in pairs of two from Forrest, junior setter Keelin Severtson, and the team’s other co-captain, Madison Lightfoot. Lightfoot, the defending America East Defensive Specialist of the Week, also recorded a season-high 26 digs.
The Wildcats will remain at home through the weekend, as they host the Holly Young Invitational, celebrating the life of former UNH volleyball player Holly Young, who lost her battle to cancer in 2008.
“Jill has done a great job of keeping Holly’s spirit alive,” said Forrest. “It’s a huge part of our culture…especially that weekend, we keep her in mind and pay homage to her [Young].”
The tournament kicks off on Sept. 11, when the ‘Cats take on the University of Delaware at 7 p.m. On Saturday, they face a grueling Michigan State University team at 12:30 p.m. before battling the Boston College Eagle, another ACC opponent, at 7 p.m. The matchup with BC marks the 15th annual “Pack the Arena” night.