The 1998 season was truly a historic year for the University of New Hampshire volleyball team.
From its undefeated championship run through the America East Conference to the school's first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, UNH emerged as one of the top volleyball programs in the East.
This season, the Wildcats are looking to equal the success of a year ago - they are "On the Attack to Go Back to Back." UNH finished the 1998 campaign with a 24-11 record, a 14-0 mark in America East action and brought home the school's first America East Championship with a 3-1 victory over Hofstra in the championship on November 22. The Wildcats then went on to the NCAA Tournament in Fayetteville, Ark. and played an impressive game against Arkansas, but were knocked out by the Razorbacks.
That taste of a conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament has fueled this year's Wildcats, and with a host of returning players, UNH could very well find themselves right back in the national mix. Head coach Jill Hirschinger is in her fourth year at the helm of the Wildcats and if her recent success is any indication, the Wildcats may very well go beyond last year's achievements. Hirschinger, who won her second consecutive America East Coach of the Year title last season, has posted a 47-21 record over the past two seasons and has an overall career coaching mark of 462-288-10.
The Wildcats lost only four letterwinners and return five of six starter's from last year's championship team. In addition, UNH will receive a boost from the return of senior co-captain Bethany Cole (Canterbury, N.H.) Cole returns after red-shirting all of last year with an ankle injury and her presence will be an immediate impact for the Wildcats. The 1997 America East Player of the Year, Cole is a dominating middle hitter with her hard-hitting, 6-1 frame and is a candidate for the top individual conference honor again this season.
The other co-captain is senior Leisha Campbell (Oswego, N.Y.), who is expected to once again be one of the top players in the conference. An All-Conference First Team selection and a member of the America East All-Tournament Team, Campbell is a versatile player who was fourth on the team last year in kills (243), second in hitting (.221) and second in blocks (115), Junior outside hitter Jillian Ross (Naperville, Ill.) will also be looked upon to provide the Wildcats with a dominating presence up front. Last season, Ross, a second team All-Conference selection, led the team in kills (382), hitting percentage (.261) and service aces (49).
Another key returning player is junior middle hitter Jennifer Walker (Fulton, N.Y.). Walker played in all but one game last season and was the conference leader in blocks (115) and was second on the team in kills with 329. With all the power for the Wildcats up front, junior Stacy Barnett (Crystal Lake, Ill.) will be looked to continue her success last season from the setter position. Barnett, who was a member of the All-Conference First Team and All-Tournament Team, led the Wildcats with 1,223 assists and was second on the team in digs (342).
Other top returning players are senior outside hitter Carrie Brandon (Midland, Mich.), senior outside hitter Jessica Houle (Durham, N.H.), junior outside hitter Kim Mirts-Poen (Essex, Iowa), and senior outside hitter Erika Bartlett (Gilmanton, N.H.).
In addition to the abundance of talent returning for UNH, the Wildcats also boast a top crop of newcomers to the program, including University of Maryland transfer Katie Jentes (Durham, N.H.). Jentes played her high school volleyball alongside current teammate Houle at Oyster River High School and was a top recruit when she headed to Maryland. In the past two seasons as a Terrapin, Jentes played in a total of 47 matches and appeared in 128 games. Last year, Jentes tallied 172 kills, 30 blocks, 132 digs and 11 service aces.
As a freshman, Jentes was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Rookie Team and averaged 2.3 kills a game, .32 aces per game and 1.6 digs a game. Also entering the Wildcat program are sophomore Kelly Cutillo (West Islip, N.Y.) and freshmen Stephanie Grant (Rochester, N.H.), Amber Wade (San Diego, Calif.), Lori Redner (Long Beach, Calif) and Lauren Knight (Centerville, Mass.). Wade, a 6-0 middle hitter, led Patrick Henry High School to the 1998 Eastern League Championship and was the a two-time team MVP and First Team All-League Selection. Knight, a 5-10 outside hitter, was a four-time Division I State Champion at Barnstable High School and led her team to an impressive 107-1 record. The 1998 Massachusetts Player of the Year set a school record with 396 kills and a .480 hitting percentage. Knight was also an outstanding track athlete at Barnstable, taking state championships in the 100 meter, javelin and shot put. She currently holds school records in the 100 meter hurdles, 50 meter hurdles, 55 meter hurdles, shot put, javelin, heptathlon and pentathlon. Cutillo played her high school volleyball at West Islip High School and guided her team to the 1997 championship with an undefeated record of 12-0. Grant, who graduated from Spaulding High School, is expected to be a defensive specialist for the Wildcats. Redner should also see action in her first year with the Wildcats. A 6-1 middle hitter, Redner played at Millikan High School and was a member of Club Long Beach. She also led her team to the Moore League Championship in 1996.