By ANDREW YOURELL
What did the volleyball say to Abby Brinkman before Friday night’s matchup with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County? No one’s quite sure, but it led to the UNH senior tearing the cover off the ball all weekend en route to a 3-1 (25-17, 25-23, 19-25, 25-23) win over UMBC and a 3-0 (25-17, 25-18, 25-13) victory on Saturday against the Stony Brook Seawolves.
Brinkman had a season-high 15 kills in the first game, and then 11 more in the second to help UNH improve its record to 14-7 (6-0 in America East) and to vault the team ahead of everyone in the conference standings.
“Abby came up with some key blocks for us,” head coach Jill Hirschinger said after the UMBC game. “She just had a really good game all around.”
Brinkman’s big day came when the two-time defending America East champions needed it most. Through the first four games in America East play, the Wildcats had gotten off to a 4-0 overall record and a 12-0 set record, but they faced their stiffest challenge in their quest for a three-peat from a hard-hitting UMBC team.
UNH won the first two sets, before dropping the third to end its 14-0 set run in the conference. After getting the match win, their seventh overall and fifth in the conference, however, the coaches and the team seemed unfazed.”
“Sometimes you’re glad it ends, because you hate to get down to the last and to have anyone talk about that, or that weigh on their minds,” Hirschinger said of the streak’s end. “It’s better to get it over with. You’re going to lose some battles, but we want to win the war.”
“We got the ‘W’,” Brinkman said. “That’s all that matters.”
UNH didn’t rely on just Brinkman in the matchup with UMBC. Also stepping up for the Wildcats were senior co-captains Tori Forrest and Madison Lightfoot, and junior middle blocker Demi Muses. Forrest recorded her ninth double-double of the season, registering 14 kills and 14 digs. Lightfoot had a team-high 16 digs, and Muses played well in all facets of the game, notching 14 kills, five digs, 4 blocks and three service aces.
“We’ve been doing some new things, playing around with [junior setter Keelin Severtson] and trying new sets. Mixing it up is always a good option.”
Brinkman was quick to credit her teammates, especially Muses, for her big night. According to the 6-foot outside hitter, team’s keying on Muses was a big reason for the wrinkles in the UNH attack. By drawing defenders to her, Muses allowed Severtson to dish out 49 assists, many of them to Brinkman, who took advantage.
In Saturday’s match with the Stony Brook Seawolves, it was pretty much the same story. Brinkman torched the ball 11 times, which was good for second on the team. The team leader on Saturday was Cassidy Croci, who had 12 kills and a number of big blocks.
Brinkman and Croci usually record a few well-timed kills that give UNH momentum, but the duo are often outshined by Forrest and Muses, who rank at the top of the conference in kills per set. But over the weekend, both players blew up—all part of a plan to throw up the offensive system and to keep teams guessing when it comes time to play the ‘Cats.
“If we keep doing the same thing over and over again, people are going to catch on to it,” Hirschinger said. “So we need to change who’s doing what, where, and just make it a little bit more complicated.”
Croci, who often meets opponents at the net wearing an intense scowl, also deflected credit from herself to her teammates, as members of Hirschinger’s squad almost always do when met with praise. One player that Croci singled out was Severtson, who added another 35 assists in the Stony Brook game.
“Keelin did a good job distributing the ball, and it’s tough to defend when you have everyone involved, and I think that’s the great thing about our team,” Croci said. “Anyone can step up on any given night.”
On Friday, it was Brinkman, Forrest and Muses. Saturday, it was Brinkman and Croci stepping up on offense, and a stifling defensive effort that held Stony Brook to a .029 hitting percentage. Tomorrow, who knows? That’s part of the plan for Hirschinger and the Wildcats.
“We’re an all-around team, we don’t have one person we rely on,” Hirschinger said. “If someone isn’t doing it, someone else has stepped up.”
It’s a conundrum that will give America East coaches nightmares as UNH preps to go through the conference for the second time before starting the America East tournament.
UNH will travel to the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut on Friday. The tilt will begin at 7 p.m. in the Hartford Volleyball Arena. The Hawks are currently 0-20 with an 0-5 conference record, though they still have to make it through a match with UMBC before the Wildcats come to town.
The ‘Cats, meanwhile, look to take it one step at a time. They won’t acknowledge the fact that they’re on the brink of something great. Just ask Croci where she sees the team going.
“We’ll just continue to keep getting better every day in practice.”
On the Brink, man: Senior Abby Brinkman leads UNH in weekend doubleheader
By ANDREW YOURELL