In a season littered with injuries and inconsistent play, there’s been one constant for the North Carolina volleyball team: a home-court advantage.
With Sunday’s 3-0 win over Syracuse, UNC is 11-1 at home and 8-0 against ACC opponents.
It’s a stark statistic compared with their overall record. Projected as a ranked team at the start of the season, the Tar Heels are 12-10 and 9-5 in the ACC. Ninety percent of their losses have come on the road or at neutral sites. So what’s the difference?
“I wish we could take this on the road,” head coach Joe Sagula said.
The Tar Heels hit a mid-season stride, winning five straight against ACC opponents, but that quickly slipped away.
Starting Oct. 20, UNC was swept in three straight matches against Pittsburgh, Florida State, and Miami, all on the road. With postseason hopes on the line, the Tar Heels had to go back to the drawing board.
“I think our practices got a lot more intense," middle hitter Katharine Esterley said. "Every player knew that we were in a tough situation with our record, so going forward, we knew that we had to work really hard at practice."
“It’s do or die now,” libero Casey Jacobs said.
It’s not that the Tar Heels didn’t have the talent. They just seemed to lack the discipline in the little things – the things that good volleyball teams work on, even though they may seem redundant.
“We just went back to practice,” Sagula said. “We needed to work on our free ball discipline, down ball. It wasn’t so much the defense, it was just the easy balls. We just didn’t have the discipline there.
And it seemed to work. This weekend, the Tar Heels swept both Boston College and Syracuse in Carmichael Arena. They proved dominant on all sides of the ball. It wasn’t particularly flashy, but they minimized errors all-around, something they let fall through the wayside earlier on.
There’s just something different about Carmichael that brings out the best in this UNC team. In the loss at Pittsburgh, the Tar Heel offense posted only 27 kills, tied for its lowest of the season, and then only 29 at Miami. At home, against Boston College and Syracuse, the unit put up 39 and 41, respectively.
It’s not just the offense that thrives at home. The backcourt seems to rise to the occasion at Carmichael. Again, at Pitt and Miami, the defense produced only 19 and 28 digs, respectively. In the matches against Boston College and Syracuse, UNC had 57 and 55 digs.
Maybe it’s the opponents. Maybe it’s the crowd. Or maybe, it’s the design of the gym itself.
“We’re not supposed to say other things, but we honestly have the most beautiful gym in the ACC,” Jacobs said.
Whatever it may be, it creates a tough environment for opponents. But in order to meet expectations, the Tar Heels need to take a bit of this Carmichael magic on the road.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.