UNC volleyball earns second place in another home tournament

The North Carolina volleyball team earned second place in each of its home tournaments this season after losing a Friday night match and improving to end the weekend with two players named to the all-tournament teams.

But the similarities end there.

Sept. 9 and 10, the Tar Heels had a strong offensive presence on the court, earning wins from serving and hitting runs, and had an outside hitter and a setter selected for all-tournament honors.

But this weekend, the defense scored 25 points on blocks alone. Many of those blocks were made by Tia Gaffen and Chaniel Nelson, who were the two all-tournament team selections for UNC this weekend.

While the Tar Heels lost to Tulsa 3-1 in a close fourth set that included 14 tie scores, coach Joe Sagula did recognize his team’s ability to do one outstanding thing — containing All-American Tyler Henderson to only 20 kills, much lower than her usual game average.

Henderson made nine of her 20 kills in the first set before the defense stepped up, holding her to two kills in the second set, five in the third and four in the fourth.

The team’s defense against Tulsa was not only a strength noted by Sagula, it was also a consistent force throughout the weekend.

“We’ve been practicing (blocking) a lot,” Nelson said. “We have goals even for each set on how many blocks we’d like to have, maybe three or four, and we’ve just done a lot better with that. Defense wise, I feel like our communication is getting a lot better. Our chemistry’s getting a lot better.”

The blocking goals were reflected almost perfectly in the weekend’s games, when the team posted eight blocks against Tulsa and Miami (Ohio), and nine against St. Louis.

“I think defense is integral, you have to be able to transition and get a good hit,” Gaffen said. “Defense is really important — picking up the ball, stopping the other team from getting points and being able to capitalize on their digs.”

It was not just the ability to do these things that strengthened UNC this weekend, but a continued effort to do them.

“I think we were really scrappy this weekend,” Gaffen said. “We didn’t quit on anything. You saw people diving for balls in bleachers. We just didn’t let anything drop this weekend which was awesome.”

The team talked about having focus and a purpose after Friday night’s loss, and Nelson marked a career-high 16 kills during Saturday afternoon’s match against Miami (Ohio).

“We talked a lot about where we’re going to position as a team because we do need to keep improving our blocking,” Sagula said. “We’re working on it every day and we’re going to keep getting better and better.”

After having eight points on blocking in the first two matches, UNC finished the weekend against St. Louis with nine on the match, a number close to the team’s specific goal.

“It’s kind of funny, because our goal this week as a team was to average 3.3 blocks per set, so we got very close” Sagula said. “So if we can do that we’re going to be in good shape. If we can do that, then we will continually be a tough team to beat.”

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