DURHAM, N.H. - The University of New Hampshire volleyball team finds itself in familiar territory again this preseason, as the Wildcats were voted No. 1 by America East coaches for the fourth consecutive year.
What's unfamiliar this season, though, is they are sharing favorite honors with Northeastern University, who along with UNH received three first place-votes and 44 points overall. Towson University was selected No. 3 in the preseason poll, taking the two remaining first place votes with 41 points overall.
The last time UNH was not tabbed preseason favorites was 1997 when it was selected fifth. The 'Cats finished second that year. In 1998, the Wildcats won their only America East Championship. In each of the last two seasons, New Hampshire has finished second.
Rounding out the poll were the University of Maine with 30 points, Stony Brook University (21 points), Drexel University (20), University of Hartford (16) and University of Albany (7).
Gone from last year's America East runner-up, which finished 23-11, 13-3 in America East, are first team all-conference members Stacy Barnett, Jillian Ross and Jennifer Walker. In their place is a strong nucleus of young, yet battle-tested juniors and sophomores including America East Rookie of the Year sophomore Alyson Coler (Monte Sereno, Calif.) and team captains juniors Lauren Knight (Centerville, Mass.) and Sasha Scott (N. Branford, Conn.).
The Wildcats are young, with no seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and six freshman, but New Hampshire coach Jill Hirschinger is confident that last year's rookie class, including setter Erin Ludwig (Franklin Lakes, N.J.) and 6-3 middle hitter Chelsea Hammer (Eden Prairie, Minn.), will be able step up and produce immediately. The same can also be said for this year's freshman, who Hirschinger claims is the best recruiting class in her six years with the 'Cats. Among the incoming freshman expected to have an immediate impact are outside hitter Bonnie Wilson (Moraga, Calif.) and setter Kerin Mackanin (Bartlett, Ill.).
UNH opens the season at the University of Connecticut tournament Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 and will host Boston College in its home-opener on Sept. 5.