"(Last season) was special,” Coach Joe Sagula said. “We’ve done something we’ve wanted to do for quite some time and move the program up to a national position — and to stay there.”
For years, UNC has played the role of spoiler, eager to crash the party of the perennial contenders. But during the 2014 season, North Carolina staked its own claim, defeating No. 3 Florida State and holding its own in a loss to second-seeded Texas in the NCAA quarterfinals.
This year, the novelty has worn off — UNC has arrived.
“The target’s bigger on our back,” Sagula said. “For years we’ve been the hunters. Now we’re the hunted.”
But the burden of a top-10 mantle rests easy on the Tar Heels’ shoulders. Despite losing defensive anchor Ece Taner, UNC boasts three Preseason All-ACC selections — McPherson, senior Paige Neuenfeldt and redshirt junior Taylor Treacy.
“It means a lot, but it also means nothing at the same time,” she said. “It just put more pressure on those people to perform.
“Luckily, I like performing under pressure.”
Sagula told his All-ACC trio they’ll have to meet — and exceed — their previous levels of excellence for the team to succeed.
And like her teammate, McPherson embraces the pressure.
“We are a target right now,” McPherson said. “Because we did so well, people are coming for us. Some teams might crumble under that pressure, but knowing that we are on that target board makes us want to work even harder.”
McPherson acknowledged that Taner’s departure was on UNC’s mind early. But the strong play of senior Heather Gearhart and junior Sheila Doyle — and the addition of freshman Casey Jacobs — eased any concern.
“We’ve always been known as a team that’s played pretty solid defense, and they’re going to do the job,” said Sagula of his team’s three liberos. “I don’t feel like we’ve dropped much at this point.”
His peers agree — the No. 7 ranking matches where North Carolina placed a season ago, one game short of a Final Four berth.
This season, the Tar Heels are determined to take it one step further.
“Anytime you have rankings, it brings responsibility,” Sagula said. “Right now it’s more important not where we start but where we finish.
“Ultimately we want to make it to Omaha.”