With an appearance in the NCAA tournament assured for the fourth straight season, Demi Muses gathered with her New Hampshire volleyball teammates together Sunday night to watch the unveiling of the bracket.
Unlike many tournament hopefuls, the Wildcats weren’t waiting on if their name would show up, but where they would be placed. And Muses, a senior middle blocker from Orangevale, California, had her fingers crossed that New Hampshire might be heading to a postseason destination farther west or south than Lincoln.
“I was hoping we were going somewhere warm, if I were to be honest,” Muses said. “But it’s incredible to be able to say you’re playing the defending national champion. It’s also incredible we get to play in their arena with so many fans.”
The Wildcats will face Nebraska (27-2) at 7 p.m. Friday in the NCAA first round at the Devaney Center. It’s the fourth year in a row New Hampshire (21-10) has made the postseason by winning the America East tournament, but after an early-season injury sidelined Muses, she isn’t taking any success for granted.
“Nothing is ever an expectation because every year it’s a new team,” said Muses, the back-to-back America East player of the year. “I don’t like to look that we’ve won the past three years. It’s a new group of girls, it’s a new team.”
New indeed. Setter Keelin Severtson, the two-time conference setter of the year, joined Muses as the only seniors who have played four years of volleyball for the Wildcats. The team got a surprise addition from one more senior this fall when Sara Carlson returned to the sport after playing four years on the New Hampshire women’s hockey team.
Carlson started the year as a front-row player, but coach Jill Hirschinger eventually moved Carlson to libero, where she averages 3.24 digs per set.
“Just the transition from skating to volleyball was too much stress on her knees (to play front row),” Hirschinger said.
Added Severtson: “She said diving on the floor hurts less than getting hit by a puck.”
No matter where the Wildcats were sent for postseason play, they figured to have at least a few players’ families in attendance. The Wildcats’ roster has players from 12 states, including many from warmer climates than the team’s Durham campus.
Hirschinger, now in her 21st season as the New Hampshire coach, recalled her first recruiting call to Severtson, asking what the player’s priorities were in a school. From her home in Delray Beach, Florida, Severtson listed “playing someplace warm” and “being close to home.”
“She would just hang up now?” Hirschinger asked her.
That meet-cute was the start of the best run in New Hampshire volleyball history. The Wildcats are the first team ever to win four straight America East tournaments, and they’re no stranger to being matched up against college volleyball’s biggest names. In Severtson and Muses’ college careers, New Hampshire has lost to Florida, Washington and USC in the last three opening rounds.
“It’s been a wild four years at UNH,” Severtson said. “Honestly, I was really thinking if Demi and I got one NCAA tournament, we would be so incredibly blessed.”
Severtson was a constant this year as the Wildcats endured some early trials. The team juggled lineups before eventually working in three freshmen starters. Another obstacle came when Muses injured her back working a preseason volleyball camp. She missed the first several weeks of the season with a bulging disc, but returned to lead the Wildcats in kills (3.57 per set) and digs (3.56) and rank second in blocks (0.81).
“Demi is a very courageous player,” Hirschinger said. “She’s competitive, plays hard. If we need a point, she’ll do anything.”
After back-to-back losses to Binghamton and Albany in mid-October, the Wildcats were 11-10. Then, as Severtson says, “it clicked all of a sudden.”
New Hampshire hasn’t lost since, winning 10 straight coming into the NCAA tournament. That included sweeping rematches against Binghamton and Albany to win the America East tournament title.
“This whole year, we haven’t even looked at winning, even in our conference championship,” Hirschinger said. “We’ve worked on working. The only place ‘win’ comes before ‘work’ is in the dictionary alphabetically.”
NOTE: News Channel Nebraska will not carry the first round match with New Hampshire due to high school basketball on Friday night. However, if the Huskers win, we will have their match Saturday night on 1600 AM, 105.5 FM.