By ANDREW YOURELL
The Wildcat volleyball team had to travel to close out its regular season, but wins at Stony Brook and UMBC have given the ‘Cats the chance to return home for at least one more game.
“As a senior class, we are so thankful and privileged to bring the tournament back to Lundholm for the third year in a row,” UNH senior co-captain Tori Forrest said.
UNH has been the top team in the America East conference for most of the season, tallying eight straight wins to open the conference season. But a loss at home to Albany on Nov. 1 threatened the Wildcats’ chances to host the tournament.
“Losing to Albany at home was a wake up call and revealed weaknesses we didn’t know we had,” Forrest said. But UNH head coach Jill Hirschinger didn’t allow the loss to get her team down
“Jill is the best leader and she didn’t allow us to feel anything but eager to fix what we needed to and encouraged us to work harder in practice to make sure we stayed true to our team goal: ‘Get better every time we step on the court,’” Forrest said.
With both Albany and UNH tied atop the conference standings at 8-1, the Wildcats hit the road, finishing the season with games at UMass Lowell, Stony Brook and UMBC. Albany, meanwhile, finished out with home games against Stony Brook and UMBC and a road trip to UMass Lowell.
Both teams won out, with Albany taking a 3-2 decision over Stony Brook and 3-0 sweeps over the Retrievers and the River Hawks. UNH swept UMass Lowell and UMBC and also defeated Stony Brook, 3-1, and both teams finished with identical 11-1 conference records.
In head to head play, both teams were 1-1 with 3-3 set records, meaning that the tiebreakers went to sets in conference. UNH had a 33-5 set record, whereas the Great Danes dropped 11 sets, giving UNH the slim lead in the standings.
“We’re just really excited to bring the championship back to New Hampshire,” Hirschinger said. Her team has hosted the tournament in each of the last two years, en route to back-to-back America East Championship titles.
All year, Hirschinger and her team have refused to think further than the next game, but the head coach admitted after the UMBC win that hosting the tournament has been one of the team’s goals since day one.
“It’s something we’ve had our sights set on all year,” she said.
Forrest also admitted that the Wildcats had the stakes in their mind this weekend, with the chance to return home in the balance.
“We know the magical atmosphere UNH fans create in Lundholm,” she said. “We are excited to battle it out in front of friends and family one last time.”
To do it, the Wildcats had to travel into hostile territory twice. In an interview given prior to the road trip, Hirschinger discussed the difficulty of playing in Stony Brook’s Pritchard Gymnasium and UMBC’s RAC Arena.
But the Wildcats cruised through the weekend. At Stony Brook, the team used nine service aces and nine blocks to beat the Seawolves in four sets. The offense was led by Abby Brinkman’s 14 kills and Cassidy Croci’s .333 hitting percentage. Maggie Kenney led the team with three aces.
In Sunday’s tilt, the Wildcats came out firing, tallying a .370 hitting percentage as a team. Juniors Keelin Severtson and Demi Muses were the top two in hitting percentage, with marks of .714 and .600, respectively. Muses and Forrest—who had a respectable .368 hitting percentage of her own—notched 10 kills apiece to lead the attack.
Severtson dished out 31 assists in the UMBC game, in addition to her five kills and two aces. In the Stony Brook game, the setter facilitated the offense with 41 assists and two more aces.
“I thought we were really scrappy on defense,” Hirschinger said of her team’s weekend effort. The Wildcats held the Seawolves to a .185 hitting percentage, then came out on Sunday and stifled the Retrievers’ offense in similar fashion, holding the home team to a .195 hitting percentage.
The loss knocked the Retrievers from the playoff race. The Albany Great Danes, the No. 2 seed, will take on Stony Brook in the tournament’s opening round on Friday at 4 p.m. In their last meeting, the Danes outlasted the Seawolves in five sets. The Wildcats will host the Binghamton Bearcats in the second game, slated to begin at 7 p.m. on Friday night. The winners will square off on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 5 p.m. The America East champion earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Hirschinger said that the team will approach this weekend the same way that it has approached every weekend series this season.
“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve done all year,” she said. “Take it one game at a time. One set at a time, one point at a time.”
Forrest added that the team is feeling the best it’s felt all season, but is approaching Friday night’s game with some intensity.
“We have won nothing but the right to host, and I think the entire team is aware that our hard work has gotten us this far, but there are still two games left to play,” Forrest said. “It will be a fight—we are playing greating teams this weekend—but I have 100 percent confidence in our team. We are tough, we are relentless and together we are ready to make history.”
‘Cats coming home for America East Championships: Two road wins over the weekend have helped UNH clinch the top seed in the conference tournament, which begins on Friday night
By ANDREW YOURELL