Adversity is test many teams often face, and that is the case for the North Carolina volleyball team. The Tar Heels have suffered key injuries for what seems to be the entire season.
However, with a chance at an NCAA Tournament appearance on the line, the team continues to push through every game with a new lineup of healthy players each week.
That adversity seemed to creep up on the team once again Thursday night as the team faced off against a solid Georgia Tech team. The Tar Heels (13-10, 10-5 ACC) started the match strong with a commanding first-set lead, a new trend as of recent for the team after a history of first-set struggles throughout the season. North Carolina finished the set with a 25-15 victory and carried that momentum into the second set, going up 14-7 early.
The momentum seemed to be halted there, though, as Georgia Tech (12-14, 7-8 ACC) made adjustments during a second set break and capitalized on the changes. The Yellow Jackets went on to win the second set 25-21 and continued on to win the third set 25-17.
After a dominant first set, the second- and third-set struggles were a surprise to many, including head coach Joe Sagula.
“I don’t know what is the answer for that other than we went back to being the old Carolina,” he said.
The Tar Heels chances of winning the game looked slim in the fourth set as the team struggled to find their rhythm. The set went back and forth for both teams until late in the set when the score was tied. After North Carolina had missed on a few opportunities, the team looked frustrated, but not out of the match.
With the score 17-19 in favor of the Yellow Jackets, redshirt senior Taylor Fricano called on her team to step up, as the match marked Fricano’s second to last game in Carmichael Arena.
“I said ‘Guys, play, you have Carolina on the front of your jersey, like that means so much,'" Fricano recalled. "'Look at these fans, look at the chairs, your peers around you, your coaches, your teammates. This is where you belong. Look up at the Jumbotron, you see a giant "NC" right above you. This is a beautiful place that has so much meaning'.”
The team rallied behind Fricano’s words and won the set, 25-21. Locked into a match-determining fifth set, the crowd roared behind the team with multiple chants throughout the set. North Carolina fed off the atmosphere and stood strong, especially on a point that included three blocks at the net by the overpowering frontline of the Tar Heels.
North Carolina dominated the last set and finally finished their comeback bid with a block from Fricano and Beth Nordhorn to win the set 15-9. The win marked the team’s third straight on its current four-game home stretch, after a disappointing three-game losing streak on the road previously.
The team cannot afford another loss heading into their final five games if they want have a spot in the NCAA tournament, and with a limited roster, the Tar Heels face a tough challenge.
Fricano believes her team is up to the challenge though, as UNC's played through issues throughout the season already.
“It’s been a rough season with injuries and a lot of adversity, and people coming back and leaving again," Fricano said. “It’s been hard to have a stable lineup, but now, we are realizing this is it. This is the 11 healthy people we have, and instead of being like, ‘Oh this sucks, we are missing seven people,’ we were just excited. We were like, 'You know, this is what we have and we can turn this into something great.”
The team faces off against Clemson Saturday evening in a must-win situation, but the game also marks the seniors last regular-season match in Carmichael Arena. For seniors like Nordhorn, the match has many emotions attached to it.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Nordhorn said. “I kind of love that we went to five tonight because that means I got a little extra time. I love playing here, this gym is so beautiful and our whole crowd, and everything about it is wonderful.”
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