Leath steadies UNC in 3-1 win over LSU
The North Carolina volleyball team’s season may not have started the way head coach Joe Sagula planned, as the Tar Heels (2-4) dropped their first four matches and won only one set in the process.
When Louisiana State (8-1) took the first set of Sunday’s match at Carmichael Arena, Sagula’s squad seemed in for more of the same. But UNC rallied, riding the hot hand of Taylor Leath to a 3-1 victory over the visiting Tigers.
With returning All-ACC honoree Julia Scoles out due to concussion symptoms, the pressure to lead the Tar Heel offense fell on Leath, and the redshirt junior came through time and time again.
Leath seemed to be everywhere on the court. She led UNC with 27 kills and 29 points while hitting .404, good for second on the team. Defensively, she was just as stout, providing 12 digs – often spectacularly keeping plays alive – to earn her second double-double of the young season.
Sagula was encouraged by Leath’s breakthrough and her consistency in the win, calling it her best game of the year.
“(Taylor played) great defense, passed well, was intense, served well,” Sagula said. “This is what I think she’s going to be feeling good about – that she can play this type of game throughout the season.”
Leath’s 27 kills were a career high for the 2016 ACC Player of the Year. She said the Tar Heels’ shift to a 5-1 rotation gave more opportunities to hit out.
“Our offense was pretty spread out and that helped me get openings,” Leath said.
Redshirt first-year Holly Carlton also posted a double-double and led the Tar Heels in assists with 51. Carlton credited Leath and the other hitters like Beth Nordhorn with allowing her to have a career day.
“(Leath) was awesome,” Carlton said. “When you’re a setter and your hitters are on fire, your job is very easy so they all made my job very easy today.”
After carrying the second and third sets by 25-21 and 25-20 scores, respectively, the Tar Heels ran into trouble in the fourth, trailing 23-21. With the threat of a final set looming, UNC rallied back, punctuated by an emphatic kill from Leath to even the score at 23.
Moments later, the Tar Heels finished the job as Taylor Bannister’s attack was blocked down by Madison Laufenberg and Katharine Esterley on Leath’s service point to take the fourth set 27-25.
Sagula praised Leath’s leadership in the locker room just as much as her play on the court and Leath said that she relishes the opportunity to help her younger teammates grow.
On a team with 10 underclassmen, inexperience and inconsistency can be an issue, and Leath understands that her role extends off the court.
“They’re just a great group of girls and they’re all really wanting to learn and they’re eager and we all have shared goals,” Leath said. “I just like being that role model, that person that they can look to and ask questions.”
The first few weeks of the season haven’t been easy for Sagula, but with conference play coming later this month, at least he knows that he’s found a player for the Tar Heels to lean on.
“The first couple of weeks we all struggled,” he said. “but I think it’s very satisfying for her knowing she can be that go-to player and her play inspired others.”