“I think Julia came (into her national team stint) still looking to see if she belongs at that level of the top collegiate players in the country,” Sagula said. “I think she came back thinking, 'Yeah, I think I'm okay. I can play with them.'
"She was probably one of the top outside hitters in that whole event, out of 36 players. You can't ask for more than that."
Taylor Leath, the 2016 ACC Player of the Year, also returns for the Tar Heels. The redshirt junior led the North Carolina offense last season with 374 kills. Look for her to lead the team right off the bat in Wisconsin, as she took her game to another level against top competition last season and totaled three 20-kill games against top-10 teams.
Scoles and Leath, both outside hitters, were named among PrepVolleyball.com’s 12 candidates for Preseason Player of the Year.
The 2017 Tar Heels have a lot of talent, but they are very young. The team lost five seniors from a season ago. With three true first-years and two redshirt first-years potentially stepping on the court, it could take some time for the Tar Heels to get into a rhythm.
"This team is very talented ...” redshirt senior Taylor Fricano said. “With such a raw group, we're just feeling it out. We're starting to get to know each other and tapping into that potential. Right now, we have potential, and we need to start clicking as a team."
North Carolina is known for its strong defense up front, ranking in the top six in the nation in blocks last season. The team has lost some of its height, but Sagula hopes athleticism will make up for it.
“We're going to be different," he said. "What we've been cognizant of is making sure we haven't overplayed who might be considered a veteran starter."
For the fourth consecutive season, North Carolina opens the 2017 season ranked in the top 25. After winning its 13th ACC title last season, UNC enters ranked No. 11 in the AVCA preseason poll.
The Tar Heels are poised to once again win an ACC Championship, earning the votes of all 14 opposing head coaches to repeat as conference champions this season. This is the first time a team has gone into the season as a unanimous favorite since Florida State in 2013.
But high praise often comes with high expectations. The Tar Heels do not face an easy feat this weekend.
They travel to Wisconsin to face No. 4 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Historically, UNC does not fare well against top-10 teams, with a 9-30 all-time record, but five of those wins have come in the past three years.
Sports editor Chapel Fowler contributed reporting.