“When I came in there was just one side court, [Lundholm] didn’t have the main court or the other courts. I think there were about 10 volleyballs and one set of uniforms,” UNH’s head volleyball coach Jill Hirschinger said, reminiscing about her first days with the program.
Twenty years later, a lot has changed, but the program’s one constant has been the woman at the helm. When she took over in 1996, Hirschinger became the varsity program’s first head coach as the sport made the transition from a club team to NCAA Division I.
The team is coming off of its third consecutive America East championship and sixth under Hirschinger. But the success wasn’t immediate for Hirschinger, one of the NCAA’s winningest active coaches.
“It was interesting. My first year we were 6-26,” she said, though the year was “enjoyable” despite the tough transition.
Hirschinger hit the recruiting trail hard for her second season, bringing in a number of strong prospects that helped the team finish second in the conference in 1997. The effort won Hirschinger her first America East Coach of the Year award, which she followed up by coaching a 1998 team that went undefeated in the conference en route to the NCAA Tournament.
Among the early recruits was current associate head coach Stacy Barnett, who was persuaded to visit UNH by a family friend who played basketball for the Wildcats at the time.
“I wasn’t even going to come out here. I wanted to go big and warm,” Barnett said. But she visited the school anyways, and ended up committing more than just four years to the program.
“I remember meeting with Jill, and talking with her, and she just had this dream. She had this vision of what UNH volleyball could be, and she just built a dream in me,” Barnett said. Barnett would go on to become the program leader in assists, a position she still holds, and just finished her 11th season as a member of the coaching staff.
Hirschinger’s dream for the program was simple: She wanted to be ranked regionally, make an NCAA tournament and have 2,500 fans attend a game. When she took over, Barnett said the goals seemed impossible, but in a few short years Hirschinger took UNH from a fledgling program to America East’s premiere volleyball school.
The winning might be enough to explain why potential recruits would choose to put on the blue and white and join the ranks of Wildcat volleyball players. But it’s much more than winning that keeps them coming back after graduation.
“I always use the line, ‘how many coaches in the country have two alums working for them?’” Barnett, who handles UNH’s recruiting efforts, said. “It’s a testament to her. You don’t see that. Most people play for somebody for four years, then they’re like, ‘alright, see you later. I’ve heard your voice enough.’”
Barnett is joined on Hirschinger’s staff by 2014 graduate Morgan Thatcher, a fact that Barnett often uses in her recruiting pitch.
To an outsider, Hirschinger is in many ways “Belichickian” in nature—she’s quietly intimidating, incredibly competitive, she wins and her players have an impressive loyalty for her. According to junior middle blocker Demi Muses, the reason Hirschinger inspires such admiration and loyalty in her former players is simple.
“You think that she’s this hardo, get-in-your-face kind of person, but she makes everyone around her so comfortable,” Muses said, citing Hirschinger as the “most hilarious person I’ve ever met.”
Hirschinger has a hidden sense of humor that is infectious for her teams. Prior to an away game at UMass Lowell this season Hirschinger took one look at her team rolling around on the court laughing and quietly confided that she had a good feeling about how the team would perform. The Wildcats won the match in a rout.
Hirschinger meets weekly with freshman players—even those that don’t play—to help them adjust to college life, and her players email a weekly journal that can cover any topic, on or off court, that they want to discuss. Hirschinger’s dedication to the student-athletes she coaches is something that isn’t lost on players, and Muses said that Hirschinger instills more than just winning values in her players.
“Since I’ve been here, I can just tell that she’s really grown a culture within this volleyball program that is unlike any other program I’ve ever been a part of,” Muses said. Barnett also cited Hirschinger’s “laboratory for life” approach to coaching, using volleyball to prepare her student-athletes for life after the sport.
Players often cite one of Hirschinger’s rules: leave the program better than you found it. Through the first 20 years of her UNH career, Hirschinger has followed her own rule, building her dream program and helping mold excellent young women.
“No plans,” Hirschinger said when asked how long she would continue to coach at UNH. “I still love it here.”