By ANDREW YOURELL
The Wildcats volleyball team ripped off six straight wins to race out to a 6-2 start that head coach Jill Hirschinger said was one of the best of her 20-year tenure as head coach. But on Tuesday, UNH dropped its fourth straight match to return to .500. The Harvard Crimson bested the ‘Cats 3-2 (25-18, 25-22, 22-25, 22-25, 14-16).
UNH came out strong in the matchup, with five players recording more than 10 kills, and junior Demi Muses and senior Tori Forrest notched double-double efforts on the night.
Muses led the team with 16 kills and 14 digs, and also added six blocks and a service ace, to continue her strong 2015 campaign. Forrest chipped in 15 kills, 11 digs, 2 blocks and an ace. Seniors Cassidy Croci and Abby Brinkman and sophomore Sasha Cucuz all hit the double-digit mark as well. Croci had 12 kills, and Brinkman and Cucuz tied for fourth on the team with 10 apiece.
Junior setter Keelin Severtson also had a strong game for the Wildcats. Tuesday, the 5-foot-7-inch Severtson logged career-highs with 56 assists and four kills. Senior co-captain and defensive specialist Madison Lightfoot patrolled the backcourt for 21 digs to lead the team.
“We were just making some great plays,” Hirschinger said of her team’s early efforts. The problem, she continued, was one that’s been a recurring factor for the ‘Cats early in the season—losing their focus later in sets, and later in matches.
The Crimson was led by Grace Weghorst, a junior outside hitter who led both teams with 24 kills. Three other Harvard players recorded double-digit kills—Paige Kebe, Christina Cornelius, and Caroline Holt, who recorded 14, 13 and 11 kills, respectively. Harvard’s most impressive feat, which kept them in the game when they were down two sets, was the effort of Iibero Sindhu Vegesena, whose 26 digs led the 96-dig effort for the Crimson.
In the first set, the Wildcats nabbed an early 5-1 lead over the Crimson. Harvard battled back and kept the set close, trailing UNH 15-13 after taking a timeout. UNH went on a 4-1 run, however, and never relinquished its four-point lead, winning the set by a final score of 25-18.
The second set was less lopsided, with neither team able to create much separation. The lead only changed twice, but there were 14 ties in the set. One of Severtson’s four kills gave the Wildcats a 22-21 lead, and the team kept the narrow lead for a 25-22 win to go into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.
One of the team’s strength in the two sets was the way in which they distributed the offense, getting contributions from multiple players. Severtson’s kill helped eke out the set win, but far more important was the junior’s ability to spread the ball.
UNH and Harvard came out and paced each other early in the third set, battling back and forth for supremacy. The Crimson finally pulled ahead, grabbing a 9-4 lead, which they then extended to a 13-8 lead. The ‘Cats clawed back to within one, 13-12, and the set was again locked in a stalemate, with the Wildcats grabbing a tie at 18-18 off of a Forrest kill. Harvard responded with two kills before the Wildcats called timeout to try and refocus. Harvard didn’t let the stoppage faze it, avoiding the loss by taking the set with a three-point lead.
The fourth frame was a back and forth battle, but unlike the second set, the fourth featured many lead changes—eight in total—to go with 14 ties. Harvard recorded an impressive .417 hitting percentage, but was forced to burn their first timeout when it found itself down 11-7. Fighting to avoid elimination, the Crimson slowly but surely closed the lead, earning a tie score at 20 points apiece. With the pressure on, the Wildcats buckled the next two points, and Harvard piled on to grab the 22-25 set victory, tying the game at two.
The fifth and deciding set was even out of the gates, with Harvard hitting the double-digit mark just ahead of UNH, 9-10. Hirschinger called a timeout, and the ‘Cats looked as though they’d hold on for the win, going up 14-12. Harvard stymied the ‘Cats match-point attempts, tying the set at 14 and forcing the set to go past the regulation 15 points. UNH used its final timeout, but the Crimson logged back-to-back kills to narrowly escape the contest with a win.
UNH will conclude the non-conference regular season with a tournament at Syracuse this weekend. The ‘Cats will face the hosts at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20. On Sunday, they have a doubleheader scheduled against the University of Buffalo at 12:30 p.m. and the Naval Academy at 4 p.m. After the tournament, UNH begins its conference title defense, when the Hartford Hawks visit Lundholm Gymnasium on Friday, Sept. 25.