By ANDREW YOURELL
While the rest of UNH toils away at the last two weeks of the semester and prepares for finals, the Wildcats’ volleyball team is focused on a finale of its own.
The Wildcats have a Thursday night matchup with the No. 11 Florida Gators in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament’s opening round. UNH earned an automatic bid to the tournament after defeating Albany for the America East conference title on Nov. 21, and learned of its national tournament seeding on Sunday, Nov. 29 during the NCAA’s selection show.
“We’re excited to be in the tournament,” UNH head coach Jill Hirschinger said after the selection show. “You know, get the 11th-ranked team in the country, that’s better than playing the No. 1 team.”
UNH is one of 64 teams that qualified for the tournament, and the team will compete in a 16-team field for the Austin, Texas Regional crown. It is UNH’s third consecutive tournament appearance, as they became just the third team in America East to win three consecutive conference titles.
The viewing party for the selection show erupted in cheers when it was announced that the Wildcats were headed to Gainesville, Florida. Last year, the ‘Cats drew a first-round matchup with then-No. 3 Washington, and the year before that it was the No. 6 Trojans from the University of Southern California. UNH lost both games in three-set sweeps, a fact that senior co-captain Tori Forrest said is motivating this year’s team.
“You go into every game with the idea that you’re going to win,” she said. “If not, why else would we play, why be on the court? But realistically, I’d love to [get] a set or two off of them, give them a run for their money.”
Part of the reason UNH may have drawn a more favorable matchup is its strong class of six seniors, which has been instrumental in all three conference championship runs. Highlighting the class are co-captains Forrest, the America East Championship’s Most Outstanding Player, and Madison Lightfoot, a two-time Second Team All-Conference member and the UNH record holder in career digs with 1,649.
The seniors are complemented by a small yet productive junior class. Middle blocker Demi Muses earned America East Co-Player of the Year this season. Keelin Severtson was named the conference’s Setter of the Year and enters the tournament as one of the nation’s most dangerous players from the service line.
It’s a group that Lightfoot thinks is up to the task of competing with a top team like the Gators.
“I think we have a whole different level of play because of how close we are,” Lightfoot said. “The fact that we play with each other and we play with such heart, I think that’s really going to bring something that Florida doesn’t expect.”
The game is slated to begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday in Florida’s Stephen C. O’Connell Center and will be streaming on the SEC Network. The winner will face off against the winner of the Arizona State-Florida State game for the Austin Regional’s second round.
They may not win against Florida, one of last year’s Final Four teams, but Hirschinger did make one thing clear about what her team will accomplish.
“We’re going to go out there and represent New Hampshire well.”
Wildcats set to grapple Gators in NCAA tournament
By ANDREW YOURELL