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Tori time: Captain Tori Forrest and team clinch third-consecutive America East conference title

“Come here,” Tori Forrest said to associate head coach Stacy Barnett, pulling her into a hug through tears. “We did it.”
The UNH volleyball team had just defeated Albany 3-1 (25-22, 23-25, 25-23, 25-21) to clinch its third consecutive America East conference championship. Forrest, one of the team’s senior co-captains, led the way with an inspired performance, knocking down 24 kills with a .327 hitting percentage, an ace and 14 digs.
“Tori’s great. One of our captains,” UNH head coach Jill Hirschinger said. “She leads us both on the court and off the court. She just gives everybody confidence, she makes everybody around her better.”
The Albany Great Danes—who split the regular season crown with the Wildcats—proved to be a tough opponent, and were actually leading at various points through the first three sets.
The Wildcats were down 19-14 in the first set, and Albany seemed to have all the momentum on its side as Hirschinger burned a timeout. UNH refused to surrender, battling back into the game. Keelin Severtson’s ace forced an Albany timeout with the score 20-18 in favor of the Great Danes, and she knocked another one home to claw back within one point. Maggie Kenney then ripped a kill and the score was tied at 20-20. Led by Forrest and Kenney, UNH grabbed the first set 25-22.
Albany came out firing again in the second set, jumping out to a 9-6 lead before Hirschinger called a timeout. A few plays later, 5-foot-7-inch Severtson went up at the net and stuffed an Albany attack, blocking to bring UNH within two points. Their lead narrowed to 12-10, Albany called a timeout. The teams stayed knotted until Albany took advantage of Wildcat miscues to pull ahead 23-20, then outlasted a late comeback to hold on to a 25-23 set win, evening the match at 1-1.
UNH hadn’t had to play down very much this season, but Forrest said the team was prepared to battle back. Despite the lack of in-game pressures, she said that the play of backup players in practice developed a resilient mindset for the team’s starters.
“I’ve got to give kudos to our bench players, our second and third-string players,” Forrest said. “They bring a special effort everyday at practice that causes us to fight those uphill battles that we don’t necessarily see against other teams.”
The third set was another slugfest, with Cassidy Croci’s kill giving UNH a slim 13-12 lead. A Demi Muses block minutes later gave UNH a 15-13 lead, which they slowly extended to 18-15 before Albany called a timeout. The first timeout didn’t help, and UNH extended the lead to 22-18, forcing another Albany timeout.
This time, the break did the trick, and Albany whittled away at the UNH lead. With her team’s focus slipping and the score at 22-21, Hirschinger called a timeout of her own. Senior Abby Brinkman came into the game and nailed back-to-back kills to give UNH set point, and another Muses kill ended the set, 25-23 in UNH’s favor.
“We’re better together than we are apart, and I think we played together tonight,” Forrest said. Despite her herculean effort, Forrest was not the only Wildcat to make major contributions.
Muses, the America East Co-Player of the Year, logged a .371 hitting percentage en route to 13 kills, and also added 23 digs and five blocks. Severtson, the conference’s Setter of the Year, dished out an astonishing 60 assists—more than the entire Albany team combined. Kenney and Croci had eight kills each, with hitting percentages of .357 and .294, respectively. Brinkman had seven kills, each one hit seemingly harder than the last, and sophomore Courtney Bowman had two kills late in the game, despite rarely playing up front.
Defensively, senior co-captain Madison Lightfoot dove and slid all over the floor to rack up 22 digs and to help limit Albany to a .188 team hitting percentage.
The performance of her senior class, Hirschinger said, was one of the main reasons for this year’s success.
“You win with your seniors,” Hirschinger said. “They had great leadership, that’s what I give a lot of credit to is the senior leadership. But you also have to have fellowship, and the underclassmen really followed what [the seniors] were doing.”
For the seniors, the game marked the culmination of years of hard work. According to Hirschinger, the group has devoted itself to the system and the seniors have worked every day to end their careers with this type of signature win.
“They’ve been special ever since they arrived on UNH’s campus,” she said. “That group of seniors…they’ve dedicated themselves, their whole life, their whole culture, to UNH volleyball, and this is just so rewarding for them.”
Following the fourth set, which UNH led from the start, the conference honored several players for their achievements. UNH volleyball had three representatives on the All-Tournament Team. Croci and Lightfoot were honored alongside Forrest, who also garnered the America East Championships’ Most Outstanding Player award. Representing Albany on the All-Tournament Team was Co-Player of the Year Laini Leindecker, and Mikala McCauley earned the Elite 18 Award for her academic and athletic excellence.
The Wildcats’ season is not over. The team has earned a bid for the NCAA Tournament, and will find out where it’s playing on Sunday, Nov. 29, at 9:30 p.m. It’s a prospect that Hirschinger and her team are excited about.
“It’s like the highlight. We have so much fun,” she said. “We go different places, we play some of the top teams. We play in these huge PAC-12 arenas. It’s pretty cool.”

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