DURHAM, N.H. -- Returning a league-leading three all-conference selections and four starters, the 2008 Wildcats look to challenge for another America East Championship. UNH captured back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003 and were in the hunt throughout last season when they rattled off a 19-9 overall record and finished second in America East in the regular season. There is once again a flurry of optimism surrounding the 2008 Wildcat volleyball team and Head Coach Jill Hirschinger and her staff are excited about the potential of this year’s squad.
“The returnees have really worked hard in the off-season and summer to become the best volleyball players they can be. I am really proud of them for their commitment and dedication that they have given to the program both on the court and in the classroom. What makes this group so special is the strong bond they have created and the pride they have in being members of the UNH volleyball family,” Hirschinger said.
The Wildcats will play one of their most competitive non-conference lineups in program history in preparation for a depth-filled America East conference schedule. UNH will square off against defending national champion Penn State on Sept. 20. UNH will compete against some of the toughest conferences in the country including the ACC, Big 10, Big East, CAA, Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10. Over 75 percent of the Wildcats’ non-conference slate ranks in the top third nationally. Overall, UNH will play three teams in the top 50 RPI (Penn State – 2, Michigan State – 29, St. Louis – 43). The Wildcats open the home portion of their schedule with a single match against Bryant before hosting the Holly Young Invitational on Sept. 12 and 13. UNH will open the tournament with Rhode Island (7 p.m.) on Friday, Sept. 12 at Lundholm Gymnasium and will face Evansville (12:30 p.m.) and Seton Hall (7 p.m.) on Saturday on the Wildcat campus in Durham. The Seton Hall match will be the forum for UNH’s second-annual “Dig for the Cure.” The team will host the eighth annual “Pack the Arena Day” on Oct. 19 against defending regular-season champion Stony Brook University. The Wildcats will try to break their own conference attendance record of 2,415 fans that attended the Stanford match on Sept. 6, 2005.
The Wildcats are led once again by junior captain Kate Uitti (Pinckney, Mich.). Uitti, who was only the fifth second-year player in school history to garner Wildcat captaincy a year ago, will serve as the team’s captain again in 2008. Uitti, an All-Conference Second Team honoree, moved into second on the program’s all-time assists list with 2,008 through two seasons. Sophomore setter Sara Heldman (Greenwood, Ind.) emerged as a viable option and started the final three matches of the season including the Wildcats’ America East Championship match against Albany. She finished with 147 assists, including career-high 46 assists in the regular-season finale Nov. 11 against Albany.
While Uitti and Heldman will set the table for the Wildcats, one unquestionable strength will be the defense led by America East Defensive Specialist of the Year Alyse Lahti (Pepper Pike, Ohio). Lahti, who was also an All-Conference Second Team honoree, led the conference with 5.19 digs per game, more than half a dig higher than her next closest competition in America East. She also set a single-season record for digs with 540. Lucia Bridova (Bratislava, Slovakia) is the only senior on this year’s roster and will serve a valuable role in adding depth defensively for UNH. She is among the all-time assists and digs leaders, including career highs with 730 assists and 166 digs during her freshman season. Another Wildcat that made significant contributions in 2007 and will be called upon again in 2008 is sophomore Jayde Huxtable (St. Charles, Ill.). Huxtable appeared in 65 games for the Wildcats and established benchmarks with 89 digs, five assists and four kills. She set a career high with 13 digs in a pivotal conference win over UMBC on Oct. 26. Junior Kelly Harte (East Rochester, N.H.). will also be called on defensively. Harte, who missed all but five matches in 2007 due to injury, is an experienced defensive veteran that could compete for an increased role in 2008.
The Wildcats have a plethora of talent defensively, but they also have an abundance of highly talented offensive players that will look to replace America East All-Conference honorees Emmy Blouin and Jessica Compton. This year’s offensive group will be headlined by America East All-Conference First Team selection Kirsten Bates (Calgary, Alberta). Bates, a junior right-side attacker, was a true triple threat for the Wildcats, ranking in the top 10 in America East in kills (6th – 3.55 kpg) and aces (10th – 0.38 apg) and was among the team leaders in blocks and hitting percentage. Another returnee is junior Lindsay Fogarty (Pleasanton, Calif.). Fogarty was tied for the team lead as she played in all 28 matches in 2007. During her sophomore campaign, Fogarty set career highs in kills (212), blocks (85) and hitting percentage (.285). The final returnee from the middle blocker position is Justine Elliott (Mitchellville, Md.). Elliott gained valuable collegiate experience in the fall and emerged as a threat during the spring season. Joining Elliott and Fogarty at middle blocker are three freshmen middle blockers that are a part of a seven-offensive player incoming freshmen class. The talent-filled group could be among Coach Hirschinger’s best incoming classes in her long tenure at UNH. Pauline Acres (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), Jessy Dick (Lethbridge, Alberta) and Starsha Tunstall (East Providence, R.I.) will all compete for a spot in the Wildcat rotation. Acres, whose Mira Costa High School team was ranked first in the nation for much of 2007 and won two national championships during her career, helped guide her team to the divisional and state championships. Dick was named to Team Alberta in 2004 and 2005, was a member of the Canada Prospects team in 2006 and 2007, and ranked in the top 25 middle blockers in all of Canada in 2007. Tunstall led her East Providence High School team to the Rhode Island state championship in 2005 and title game appearances in 2006 and 2007. She was an all-state selection in 2007 and is very athletic as she recorded a 10-feet-4 inches in her latest jump touch test.
Equally as impressive are the youthful crop of outside hitters for the ‘Cats in 2008. Sophomore Laura Yegge (Redlands, Calif.) possesses the most experience of the group, having played in 10 games in her freshman season. However, Yegge displayed a great deal of potential during the non-championship season. Complimenting Yegge is a quartet of freshmen that could play a significant role in 2008. Incoming freshman Lauren Laquerre (Concord, N.H.) also had a promising spring, as the NHIAA and Gatorade New Hampshire Player of the Year graduated early and competed with the Wildcats in the spring. Christie Dorch (Friendswood, Texas) set a school-record with a .523 hitting percentage and was named the top offensive player in Texas’ highly skilled Region 3. Taylor Dressing (Gillette, N.J.) led her Watchung Hills High School team to the state semifinals during her senior campaign as she finished her career as the program leader in kills with 641. Amy Keding (Northbrook, Ill.) was Glenbrook North High School’s top offensive player and led the Spartans to the conference and regional championships during her Most Valuable Player season in 2007.
Overall, the Wildcats return three all-conference honorees from 2007 and four all-rookies from 2006. The Wildcats have the America East playoffs in their sights this season and they have a promising young core of talent to help the program achieve its ultimate goal: win the school’s fourth America East title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.