By Andrew Yourell
The Wildcats entered Syracuse University’s Big Orange Tournament with a four-match losing streak, and the tournament got off to a bad start when UNH dropped a four-set match to lose to the host Orange 3-1 (15-25, 19-25, 25-21, 24-26). But the team bounced back on Sunday, defeating the University at Buffalo 3-0 (25-23, 25-21, 25-22) and outlasting the U.S. Naval Academy, 3-2 (25-16, 23-25, 19-25, 25-16, 19-17).
Leading the way in the weekend-long tournament was senior defensive specialist Madison Lightfoot, who tied the UNH career dig record with 1,398 digs at the end of Saturday’s matchup with Syracuse.
“It’s pretty special,” head coach Jill Hirschinger said of her senior co-captain’s accomplishment. “Maddy’s really worked hard, she’s got the career dig record, and she racked up a bunch of them after that against Navy and Buffalo.”
Tying the record with her 11 dig effort was a small consolation prize for Lightfoot and the ‘Cats after dropping a tough match against a good Syracuse team. The Orange took the first set by a 10-point margin, but the Wildcats slowly clawed their way back into the game, winning the third set and forcing the final set into extra points.
“It could’ve gone either way,” Hirschinger said. “They’re a good team. That would’ve been a nice win for us, or try to get to go five games.”
UNH didn’t let the early loss ruin the weekend, as they came out and pummeled the University at Buffalo Bulls in three sets. In the Buffalo game, Lightfoot added another 16 digs to claim sole ownership of the record.
Her best game, statistically, came in a five-set marathon against the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats claimed the first set, then dropped the second and third to go down 2-1. But they fired back in the fourth set, grabbing a 25-16 victory.
The final set of the weekend was a hard fought battle, with the Wildcats and Midshipmen battling back and forth to extend the set past the regulation 15 points.
“Navy got really strappy. It was a good win, it went right down to the end,” Hirschinger said.
The head coach was happy to see her team win a long game. Maintaining focus and winning the long volleys, sets, and matches has been an issue for the Wildcats, who raised their record to 8-7 at the end of the weekend.
“We’ve been working on trying to beat teams at the end,” Hirschinger said. She continued on to laud her team’s ability to kill, serve and dig its way to a victory.
“We won that more than they [Navy] lost it,” she said. She also credited the team’s chemistry and communication as keys in the victory, two other facets of the team’s game that have proven to be an issue at times this season.
21 digs in the finale raised Lightfoot’s career total to 1,435, with plenty of games to go to build a big lead over the previous record holder, Jen Williams.
The Big Orange Tournament marked the end of the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule. Hirschinger made a point to schedule tough matchups for the team in order to prepare the team for the rigors of defending its back-to-back America East conference titles.
“We’re confident, we’re ready,” Hirschinger said. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons.”
The Wildcats return home on Friday to take on the Hartford Hawks at 7 p.m. in the Lundholm Gymnasium.
The Hawks come to Durham with an 0-14 record in their 2015 campaign. Hartford has only won four sets so far this year.