Freshman Neuenfeldt shines
In her first class at North Carolina, Paige Neuenfeldt helped duct tape another human to a wall.
She knew that was a good sign.
But Neuenfeldt was not enrolled at the University — she was not even halfway finished with high school — but on just one of the 12 official visits she would take to Division I schools recruiting her to play volleyball.
Neuenfeldt said the students split up into groups and had to see who could hold another student against the wall for the longest period of time.
But the overarching purpose of the activity was to focus on team-building and working together — two concepts that would become all too familiar to the freshman standout’s daily routine at UNC.
“I had a really, really good time when I visited,” she said. “I knew if that was any indication of what the next four years were going to be like, I was absolutely going to love this place.”
That helped make the decision easy.
Neuenfeldt committed to play for coach Joe Sagula in the summer before her junior year of high school.
But the Michigan native said the thought of playing college volleyball hadn’t occurred to her until she began getting recruiting letters in ninth grade.
“I started playing in fifth grade for my church league back home, and I just played because all my church friends were playing,” she said.
“I had no idea about volleyball before that.”
Neuenfeldt said she did not even begin to play club volleyball until the spring of her freshman year of high school — much later than the typical college-bound player.
When colleges began to contact her she was caught off guard.
“My first year playing club volleyball, my freshman year, I got a lot of letters — questionnaire things from colleges,” she said.
“At that time I was more shocked. I didn’t really realize — I never even thought of playing college volleyball. I just wanted to be a good high school player at that point,” she said.
Her sister, who is 16 months younger, helped her sort things out. Erin Neuenfeldt is a volleyball player herself.
The two sisters sifted through the binders full of information from the schools recruiting Neuenfeldt.
Erin Neuenfeldt said she couldn’t be more proud of her older sister.
“It’s really exciting. I love telling people back at home, ‘Oh, my sister is starting as a freshman,’” she said.
“I’m iffy about playing volleyball in college, but after seeing this and hearing about (Paige) I definitely want to do it. She’s made me want to pursue it.”
And understandably so.
Neuenfeldt’s performances have demonstrated her ability to join a strong team and make quick, significant contributions.
As a middle blocker, she has registered 84 kills, 126 points and her blocks-per-set average of 1.37 is the second best in the conference. To date, Neuenfeldt has recorded 67 blocks.
The ACC named her Freshman of the Week Monday following her performances against Clemson and Georgia Tech last week.
Against the Tigers, she recorded 10 kills and 12.5 points, while finishing with three kills and six blocks in UNC’s Sunday sweep of Georgia Tech.
“It’s a crazy experience. To come in and to be getting this play time as a freshman is really, really exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time,” Neuenfeldt said.
“I have responsibilities on the court, and they trust me to get it done and stuff. I don’t feel like I have any less responsibility just because I’m a freshman.”
Neuenfeldt said her best attacking performance came in the Aggie Invite in California.
“At the beginning (the team) didn’t know — they didn’t have the trust in me that you gain over time,” she said.
“It takes a little while, it takes confidence.”
But if any of her teammates had any doubt regarding her capabilities, their concerns vanished quickly.
Senior outside hitter and captain Emily McGee said it is atypical to have a freshman serve as a team leader.
“Paige is great with bringing lots of fiery, in-your-face kills along with consistency,” McGee said. “It’s really rare to find that in the middle hitter position. Usually they just have to do their job — don’t really get noticed, just do the work blocking.
“But she’s really up in transition every time getting ready to hit every single ball — that fight and persistence is something that I really admire about Paige.”
Sagula described Neuenfeldt as a dynamic, energetic player.
“She’s like the ever-ready Energizer bunny: she just goes and goes, and she’s always up,” he said. “And her blocking at times has been phenomenal.
“Paige continues to work hard and to push herself. She knows that she can’t rest.”
For the first time, Neuenfeldt’s family was able to appreciate her hard work in Carmichael Arena as the team took on conference foes Wake Forest and Duke two weeks ago.
Her parents and two siblings watched her lead the team in points and blocks in the 3-0 Sept. 21 defeat of the Demon Deacons. On Sept. 23, they witnessed the Tar Heels clench the 3-2 win against the Blue Devils in front of a crowd of more than 1,800 fans.
“It was really fun just to be able to show them what I’ve been doing,” Neuenfeldt said. “I feel bad because I don’t always have time to keep in touch.”
But Joe Neuenfeldt understands his daughter’s busy schedule and said to call himself proud of his daughter would be an understatement.
“It’s really a joy. You never dreamed that you would have a child that would play at a D-1 level school,” he said. “For your daughter to come down here and play at Carolina and to be a part of this family and the coaches. It makes you feel really welcome and warm.”
Neuenfeldt’s parents said they knew their daughter was good. But they weren’t sure how her skills would stack up in college until they saw her playing for the Tar Heels in person.
“We had those same apprehensions when she came here,” Joe Neuenfeldt said. “Can she do it? You know, can she play?”
But now he knows. The answer is obvious.
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