It didn’t look or sound like a scrimmage.
There were vocal eruptions after heads-up plays and long points. A sizable crowd filled the bottom rows of Carmichael Arena. When balls got past players, they were sprinting and diving on the floor. The North Carolina volleyball team’s Blue & White Match was anything but a walkthrough.
“We told ourselves, ‘Let’s treat this one like our first match,’” redshirt first-year Holly Carlton said.
The scrimmage was a first look at a talented North Carolina team, which was unanimously picked to repeat as ACC champion earlier this month. And among plenty of big names, a few lesser known players stood out.
In their first game action since a Sweet 16 loss to UCLA in December and some spring exhibitions, the Tar Heels played four sets against each other on Saturday. The two teams tied, 2-2, and — based on their energy — would have been happy to play a tie-breaking fifth set if allowed.
It started with Carlton, who spent this summer playing for the U.S. Women’s Junior National Team in San Jose, Costa Rica. She played as an opposite hitter for that team, but played purely as a setter on Saturday. At 6-foot-7, Carlton is one of the tallest player on the roster and an intriguing weapon for head coach Joe Sagula.
She racked up 22 assists in the first two sets but also plans to rotate in as a hitter this season. Even though she’s yet to have played a single game at the collegiate level, her coaches and teammates are confident she’ll make herself known soon enough.
“My conclusion at the end of the spring was she felt like she belonged,” Sagula said. “And now, I feel like this is a lot of her team. And we knew that coming in — it was going to be her team. It's a Taylor Leath and a Julia Scoles team, but it's also a Holly Carlton team.”
One North Carolina lineup during the scrimmage featured five players that were 6-foot-3 or taller. Sagula and Carlton both admitted there are some disadvantages to such a tall lineup. But that same lineup has plenty of strengths, one of which is blocks.
That’s a stat Sydnye Fields knows very well. Despite missing 10 matches with injury, she ranked third in the ACC in blocks per set with 1.38. She’s already broken North Carolina’s single-match blocks record with 16 against Duke. Now, she’s completely healthy and ready to make her way up even more leaderboards.
“I have high expectations for myself,” Fields said. “I just want to meet and exceed everything that I did.”
Among plenty of positives, the Tar Heels did have a scare when Leath, the reigning ACC Player of the Year, hit the floor during a point and had to be taken off in a wheelchair. Sagula said she fainted, which is something that’s happened before due to low iron, and confirmed she was completely fine. Also missing from the scrimmage was Scoles, who is recovering from a concussion but on track to return next week.
Sagula’s team is preparing to follow up on one of the best seasons in school history, and it all starts next weekend with games against No. 4 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin. But for the No. 11 Tar Heels, the message is clear.
“Our biggest thing is to be present …” Sagula said. “We can't think about the end of the season until we invest everything we're trying to do into today.”