Wildcats gear up for conference play

Bret Belden



“Volleyball is the ultimate team sport,” Madison Lightfoot, one of volleyball’s senior captains, said into the bright lights of a WMUR camera. “It wouldn’t be statted as a dig if somebody didn’t get a second touch on it.”

Local news showed up at Tuesday’s practice to speak with Lightfoot, who on Sunday broke the UNH career digs record of 1,398, ending the weekend-long Big Orange Tournament in Syracuse, New York, with 1,435 digs. But Lightfoot had barely begun speaking before the credit went to her teammates.

“It speaks volumes of the effort we put in together, because you could work as hard as you want to and get one touch on the ball, but unless there’s someone behind you flying after that second touch, it really doesn’t matter,” the defensive specialist said. “I think it’s all-around a team effort.”

To the unobservant eye, the Wildcats’ reaction to the attention on Tuesday could have been a carefully scripted media appearance by Bill Belichick and company.

Head coach Jill Hirschinger spoke first, and while she expressed happiness for her captain’s accomplishment, the focus of her interview quickly became UNH’s upcoming match with the Hartford Hawks, an America East opponent.

“They play hard. They’ve got a lot of heart,” Hirschinger said. “They graduated their three top kids last year. So they have a lot of new kids.”

The Hawks enter Lundholm Gymnasium with an 0-14 record, having only won four sets all year. It takes three sets to win a match. The Hawks’ best showing came in a 3-2 loss to Sacred Heart on Sept. 4.

But Hirschinger made it clear that the Wildcats aren’t overlooking their first conference game of the season, despite Hartford’s less than stellar performances this year.

“Anytime you play the number one team in the conference, we have a target on our backs,” she said. “Everybody’s going to give you their best game of their entire career, of their year…beating us would make their season.”

Next to speak to the media was Lightfoot. After deflecting the attention from herself to the team, she quickly honed in on how the Wildcats are taking their preseason experiences and turning them towards the upcoming conference season.

“Conference is an exciting time,” she said. “We’re here to get better every day, and ultimately that’s what we did in preseason. We worked hard every time we were on the court. We did play some tough competition, and I think that we improved every single time we stepped on the court.”

That tough competition included recognizable Division I teams—Michigan State, Boston College, Syracuse, the U.S. Naval Academy and Wake Forest. The Wildcats lost their first two matches of the season, then rattled off six straight wins, one of the best stretches in Hirschinger’s memory at UNH. But the win streak came to an end, and the Wildcats lost seven straight, including Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Syracuse. But wins over the University at Buffalo and Navy have lifted the ‘Cats back over .500, and they’ll take their 8-7 record against Hartford on Friday.

“I think Hartford’s a dark horse,” said the team’s other captain, Tori Forrest. “They’re one of those teams that sticks around when you play them.”

Part of the reason the Wildcats aren’t treating Hartford as a pushover opponent is their unfamiliarity with this year’s team, which features a host of new faces.

“They graduated out a few of their key players from this past year, so it’ll be interesting to see what they come with,” Forrest said.

Experience may be an issue for Hartford in conference play, but for the defending champions, experience comes in droves. Forrest was an All-Conference selection last season. Lightfoot made the All-Conference Second Team and the America East All-Championship Team, and junior middle blocker Demi Muses was the Championships’ Most Outstanding Player last season.

The biggest question mark coming into this season was the relatively inexperienced new setter, Keelin Severtson. The junior saw action in 20 matches and 37 sets, and was second on the team in assists per set. But for Hirschinger, her development has been one of the most important reasons for playing in the preseason tournaments.

“She made the All-Tournament team at Syracuse so she’s really finding her game and stepping up her game,” Hirschinger said. “We’re excited about the future.”

The future starts Friday at 7 p.m. For the Wildcats, the mission is pretty simple.

“Our mantra for the season is that we’re not the defending champs. We won two championships, and that’s great, but this is a new team, a new season, and the championship is up for grabs for anybody,” Forrest said. “We’re excited to get back out there and take what we think is ours.”