The 2016 America East Champions are headed to Lincoln to take on host Nebraska in the first round of the NCAA tournament. UNH battles the Cornhuskers Friday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.
UNH is riding a season-best 10 match win streak heading into the first round of tournament play. The Wildcats have also won five of their last six matches in straight sets.
The ‘Cats are faced with the challenge of playing the defending national champions. The Cornhuskers are the number one seed in the country for a reason, notching a 25-2 record.
“We’re playing well, but we’re really excited to be playing at Nebraska,” head coach Jill Hirschinger said. “It’s going to be great playing in front of a big crowd, and it’s a once in a lifetime chance for my players.”
UNH has been fortunate to have tournament veterans such as Demi Muses and Keelin Severtson, who have played in the last three NCAA tournaments and also having several freshmen and sophomores who have never played a single point in NCAA tournament play.
“We really need to be disciplined and play good scrappy defense,” Severtson said. “Serving aggressive will be key for us, and never giving up.”
The site at Nebraska can fit over 7,000 fans, a crowd bigger than any Wildcat team has seen before. The skill on the court and the atmosphere in the stands will be something new for a team that’s so used to playing in big games.
“There’s going to be some nerves for sure,” senior Demi Muses said. “We’re excited to give a good show for the crowd and put up our best fight.”
As Nebraska stands as the one seed, no one is saying the Wildcats will win, not even the team itself. Not because the team doesn’t trust their skill or coaching, but because winning isn’t in their vocabulary.
“We haven’t even used the word win all year,” Hirschinger said. “The word we use is work, we need to work on our game, we need to have discipline and we just need to work. We’re not worried about winning; we’re worried about being the best team we can be.”
For mid-major schools like UNH, this game is a great measuring stick to the powerhouses in the NCAA field.
“I sit at the national championships as a spectator wondering how we would do against those teams, and this is a great chance to see how we would do,” Hirschinger said.
Conquering the best team in the country starts with realizing that although they may seem untouchable, they’re still human.
“I told [the younger players] they’re still our age,” Severtson said. “They put their pants on one leg at a time just like us, and every team is beatable.”
As four-year conference champions, the Wildcats go into most games having some sort of advantage. Whether it be the defense of Sara Carlson, the setting ability of Severtson, or the all-around play of Muses. But in this test, the Wildcats have a challenge that’s tough to prepare for.
“We have no advantage,” Hirschinger said. “We have a great system and we have a lot of heart on the court so we’re going to give it our best shot.”