By ANDREW YOURELL
Filling the shoes of last year’s America East Setter of the Year—who also managed to nab the conference’s award for Player of the Year—would be a tall task for any new starter. So UNH junior Keelin Severtson decided not to fill Taylor Dunklau’s shoes after she graduated.
“I had a lot of time to think about [replacing Dunklau] and I’d been here for two years, so I knew the systems and I knew the people that were still here. I set them for two years,” Severtson said. “I kind of just figured I can be successful just playing like me, so I came in with this mentality that I don’t have to fill anyone’s shoes but my own.”
The results have worked out just fine for the 19-8 Wildcats, whose 11-1 record in America East play secured the home court advantage in the America East tournament for the third straight year. The Wildcats have compiled the most potent offense in the conference and lead America East with a .251 in-conference hitting percentage.
One reason for that has been Severtson’s play as setter. She has compiled 903 assists this season and is one of only two Wildcats to see playing time in all 95 sets this season.
“She has the eye to see where the block is, so she does a really good job spreading the offense,” classmate Demi Muses said. “She’ll reverse the flow, go behind, go outside, go to the middle, go outside again, and I just think that is a huge technique and quality that you have to learn. I think she has a great eye for it and that’s what makes our offense so successful.”
Muses would know. The team’s only other junior, Muses is currently third in the conference in hitting percentage, with a .322 mark. But, true to Muses’ words, Severtson has been effective spreading the ball around. Seniors Cassidy Croci and Abby Brinkman round out the top five spots in the conference. Croci currently holds a .320 mark, and Brinkman has a .290.
UNH head coach Jill Hirschinger admits that Severtson faced a learning curve to start the season as she adjusted to playing every game, but insists that her play this season was not a surprise to those on the team.
“Having Taylor, who ended up getting Setter of the Year, in front of you, you just don’t get that much playing time,” Hirschinger said. “But we thought Keelin was actually pushing it, that there was some time in the beginning of the year [last year] that we were talking, and we were going, ‘Are we going to go Taylor, are we going to go with Keelin, who’s going to be our starting setter?’”
The coaching staff settled on experience and went with Dunklau. The results are hard to argue with—an America East conference title and numerous accolades for Dunklau. But the Wildcats were returning a number of talented players, and with Severtson’s hard work and commitment to the team, Hirschinger knew that her team could come back out and turn heads this season.
“We have the hitters and Maddy Lightfoot in the back row. On defense, we get the passes, we get the digs, and add Keelin to it,” Hirschinger said. But she’s quick to note that it’s no one player’s contributions.
“It takes everyone on the team, it’s just not one person. It’s not Keelin, it’s not the hitters, it’s not the defense,” she said. “That’s what we always say: it takes everybody.”
Despite that sentiment, Hirschinger has been impressed with Severtson’s growth on the court. But the junior’s best play has come from behind the service line.
At the end of the regular season, the Wildcats ranked as the No. 7 team in the NCAA in service aces per set, with a 1.80 mark. Leading the way is Severtson, who accounts for .54 aces per set, a mark that has her currently ranked No. 3 in all of Division I college volleyball.
“She’s got a tough floater serve,” Hirschinger said. “It drops a lot. You just don’t know, it’s really hard to read.”
Floater serves, she explained, are when the ball “catches the air,” much the same as a knuckleball in baseball. For Severtson, adding velocity often causes the ball to drop in front of opponents, something that makes returning the serve especially difficult.
“I would say that serving is something that we really focus on,” Muses said. “Every water break we’ll do two minutes before and just really practice on game serves and visioning across the net, seeing our opponents over there, hitting seams, going outer perimeters.”
Severtson, Muses said, has no problem hitting targets in-game because of the dedication with which she approaches the drills every day in practice. Again, Muses would know—her .56 aces per set mark in America East is second only to Severtson, who has compiled an incredible .71 aces per set against conference opponents.
“Oh. Cool,” Severtson said when asked about her national mark. Any further comment? “Mhm…no.”
Severtson is shy and reserved with the media, but her teammates and coaches insist that she’s different behind the scenes; according to her head coach, Severtson is someone who routinely leaps out of her comfort zone.
“During the recruiting process, we saw her, we liked her. The first conversation [associate head coach Stacy Barnett] had with her is, ‘What are you looking for in a school and what are important criteria?’” Hirschinger said. “I think the second was, ‘I want to stay close to home.’”
But a visit to Durham in late April had Severtson falling in love with the UNH program. The Florida native jokes now that she didn’t want to go anywhere cold and admitted that freshman year was tough. But what she was learning in class and her experiences on the court reminded her every day why she chose UNH.
For her part, Hirschinger said that Severtson “never complained” about the adjustment. On the court, she said, Severtson quickly acclimated herself to the faster pace of the college game.
But tough situations that challenge her seem to be what Severtson thrives on. She’s thrown herself into the college experience and is involved around campus; Severtson is a member of the Memorial Union Board of Governors, Athletes Intervarsity and the Association of Exercise Science Students, and took a role in “The Vagina Monologues” last spring.
On the court, Hirschinger noted, Severtson is always prepared for the most difficult teams.
“It’s kind of funny because we’ll play not the toughest team and she gets the most nervous,” Hirschinger said. “She’s looking forward to playing tough competition…she’s a competitor. She knows how to win.”
Off the court, Severtson is described as “spunky,” energetic and fun-loving by her teammates. Her zany antics have even led to a series of goofy nicknames referring to her sense of humor, including an especially memorable event at a team dinner.
“She’s just talking and she’s putting salt in her hands…and Tori’s like, ‘Keelin, what are you doing?’ And she was like, ‘I have no idea, I don’t even want salt on my food,’” Muses said with laughter. “We’ve called her Salty-Hands Severtson ever since…She’s a goofball and we love her for it.”
Her sense of humor has helped both Severtson and the team perform, as Hirschinger and Muses noted the team plays best when it plays relaxed.
Severtson’s humor will be on full display on Friday night at 7 p.m. The Wildcats open the America East Tournament with a tilt against Binghamton; with a win, they move on to face the winner of the Albany-Stony Brook game. For the tough test ahead, Muses is clear that there’s no one better suited to the task than Severtson.
“We are a small class; it’s just her and I,” she said. “There’s no one else that I’d rather have in my class.”
And there’s no one that the Wildcats would rather have in charge of their offense and with the ball in her hands at the service line than fun-loving, hard working Severtson.
Setting up for the Keel
By ANDREW YOURELL