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The Daily Tar Heel

Playing New Position Easy for Underwood

Malaika Underwood learned to be a setter so she could backup UNC's starter, who is now out with an ankle injury.

She passes. She hits. She blocks. She sets.

And even more notable: She does it all at a fairly new position.

Before the season, the junior from San Diego played primarily as an outside hitter. But the team turned to Underwood in the preseason when it needed a setter to back up starter Eve Rackham.

"On August 7th, we said to her, `You need to become a setter,'" UNC coach Joe Sagula said. "She took that challenge and has gone with it, and that's unbelievable."

Underwood's conversion from outside hitter to setter has proven an extremely timely one, as Rackham, the 2000 ACC assist leader, has been sidelined this season with an ankle injury.

"They needed a backup setter, and there was no backup setter to Eve," Underwood said. "So they trained me, starting this preseason, and just in time, because Eve got hurt.

"I just had to step in and be a setter. Even though I'm an outside hitter, you got to do what you got to do."

What Underwood has done in Rackham's absence is play in consistent fashion. Since taking over the starting job, she has paced the Tar Heels attack with 8.14 assists per game.

On the defensive side, the scrappy Underwood averages 2.51 digs and 0.8 blocks per game.

"Malaika shows relentless pursuit all the time, and she's had a huge job with Eve being down," teammate Holly Strauss said.

With Rackham approaching full strength, where Underwood plays on the court will become an issue but not a controversy.

In fact, the team sees having two capable setters a potential strength.

"Malaika's got a different type of look and a different type of game (than Rackham), and it's going to be a huge benefit and advantage for our team," Strauss said.

Sagula said Rackham's recovery in no way means Underwood will be displaced from the lineup.

"I think Malaika's earning some good court time for herself," Sagula said. "She's more than just a setter for us right now, so I think that's the key thing."

When Rackham returns, Underwood sees herself returning to the outside hitter position she played at before.

"We're working on me playing right side, which is opposite the setter, where I would just come in and set when she couldn't," Underwood said.

"When (Rackham) gets better, she's going to be the starting setter. That doesn't mean I won't start either, it just means I'll rotate to another position."

Despite the positional changes, Underwood feels her function on the team has remained constant.

"My role on the team has pretty much been the same," she said. "Whatever Coach needs, I just have to step in. I've just been the person who has to do the little things."

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