By ANDREW YOURELL
Hartford University’s logo may be the Hawks, but it’s the Wildcats that are flying high. UNH volleyball took an eight game winning streak and an undefeated America East record into the Hartford Volleyball Arena and fended off the winless Hawks by a score of 3-0 (25-16, 25-22, 25-21).
The win extends the Wildcats’ control of the conference, as they’re now a perfect 7-0 in conference and 15-7 overall. But, playing through the conference schedule for the second time, the win was not easy.
“The first time we played them, they had a lot of injuries,” UNH head coach Jill Hirschinger said. “They’re back to full strength, so they’re a completely different team than we saw the first time around.”
Adding to the revamped Hartford roster was the team’s home field advantage, playing in the Hartford Volleyball Arena. A small, loud gym, it’s a tough place to come into and compete well, according to Hirschinger.
“We got a little bit jittery,” she said to explain her team’s slow starts to each set.
Hartford managed to hang with UNH in the first set and the teams were locked at 8 points. UNH then ripped out an 11-1 run to go up 18-9 and force a Hartford timeout. After the timeout, UNH increased its lead to 24-12, but with the set point was unable to slam the door on the Hawks. Hartford battled back to make it 24-16 before an Abby Brinkman kill gave UNH the first set victory. UNH had a .391 hitting percentage in the set, and held the Hawks to .000.
“We want to serve at them and make them uncomfortable,” Hirschinger said. “Serve at the people who are struggling to pass…I think we executed well.”
The plan worked, as UNH tallied a number of aces but also managed to compound on the success in the first set by holding Hartford to a .047 hitting percentage in the entire match.
Hartford came out with a vengeance in the second set though, and was the first team to reach 10 points, leading UNH 10-6 early on.
No lead seems too big for the ‘Cats in this conference season, however, and they battled back to tie the game at 12, then took a narrow 13-12 lead that they built into a 20-17 lead. The Wildcats called a timeout after Hartford battled back to within one point, but the Hawks weren’t going down quietly, tying the game at 20. UNH proved too tough though, grabbing a 24-20 lead after a huge block by Maggie Kenney and Gabri Olhava. UNH ended the set with another win, 25-22.
The third set opened with a 6-2 Wildcat run off of powerful kills from Olhava, Brinkman and senior co-captain Tori Forrest. Just when it looked like UNH would assert the dominance everyone had expected from the reigning America East champions and the current No. 1 seed, the Hawks reminded everyone they were not done.
Hartford responded with a 9-2 run to gain an 11-8 lead. But Forrest sparked the offense with four kills that helped tie the game at 15. Hartford continued showing resiliency, grabbing the next three points before UNH called a timeout. The Hawks needed to play perfect volleyball to take down the Wildcats, and the pressure turned out to be too much, as several attack errors allowed UNH to tie the third set at 19, then take a 20-19 lead on another Olhava block. Up 24-20, UNH lost the serve, but a service error by the Hawks ended Hartford’s chance at a surprise coup.
The Wildcats have won nine straight now, with seven of those games in conference play. But the road won’t be as easy the second time through the America East slate, as the Hartford game proved.
“Each team is different so I think they’ll look at the tape and see what worked,” said Hirschinger, who added that the team has been looking to switch up the offense in order to throw opponents off. “We’ve changed a lot, we’re doing some different things.”
The Wildcats may be doing some different things, but they continue to get strong offensive performances from Forrest, who notched her 10th double-double of the season with 13 kills and 10 digs. The outside hitter added a pair of aces and three blocks as well.
UNH tallied seven service aces, with junior Keelin Severtson and sophomore Courtney Bowman joining Forrest with a pair of aces. Senior Maggie Kenney had the final ace for the Wildcats. UNH leads the America East conference with 1.72 aces per set this season, and Severtson is the individual America East leader, with 40 aces this season.
Severtson also facilitated the offense with 30 assists, and her 9.15 assists per set also put her at the top of the America East leader boards.
Brinkman also reached double-digit kills for the Wildcats, with 10. Olhava led the team with five blocks, which ties the freshman’s career-high mark. Senior libero Madison Lightfoot had 13 digs to lead UNH.
The Wildcats return home for two weekend games on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1. The Friday matchup will be against the Binghamton Bearcats at 7 p.m., and the Sunday matinee matchup against Albany will start at 1 p.m. As the final home game of the regular season, the Albany game will be Senior Day for the six seniors on the Wildcats’ roster.