In its second game of ACC play, the North Carolina volleyball team lost in a close five-set thriller against Louisville to fall to 0-2 in conference play.
Coming into this game, UNC was 64-3 at home in ACC matches and had not lost more than one conference home contest in a season since 2011.
The teams were neck-and-neck throughout the match. The Cardinals took the first set and UNC (4-7, 0-2 ACC) took the second as the teams countered blows, with the match eventually going five sets. Louisville (9-4, 2-0 ACC) finally seized control and defeated the Tar Heels by two points in the final frame to clinch the victory.
“It’s a heart-breaker, it’s a disappointing one to lose 15-13 at home,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “It can’t be enough just to do this and be close.”
The Cardinals are the defending ACC Co-Champions (along with Pittsburgh) and boasted a star-studded, experienced lineup. It featured the 2017 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Molly Sauer, the 2017 ACC Setter of the Year, Wilma Rivera and Jasmine Bennett, who ranked third in the country in hitting percentage heading into the weekend.
Two Tar Heels, middle hitters Katharine Esterley and Ava Bell, made a noticeable impact in trying to weather that storm. Bell led all hitters with 20 kills while also adding five blocks and four digs in her stat-stuffing afternoon. Esterley had eight kills and recorded eight blocks in her strong performance.
“We knew that they were going to be experienced." Sagula said. "Our game plan was to play aggressive and force them to make mistakes.
Esterley, a captain, is known as a defensive stopper, which is why it was encouraging for her team to see her come onto the scene as an offensive force.
“Esterley with eight kills, that’s one of her better offensive matches of the year,” Sagula said.
Often times another first-year, Destiny Cox, takes the role as the powerful hitter but she got off to a slow start after a few uncharacteristic mishits. Her inconsistent play opened up opportunities for others to prove themselves and get more touches, which Bell took full advantage of. Louisville had no answer for her breakthrough performance and the points kept piling on.
After the game, Sagula praised Bell as well.
“Ava Bell was fantastic," Sagula said. "No errors, 20 kills as a middle, that’s pretty amazing.” He also mentioned that with more players contributing in big ways, the team is learning they don’t have to rely on one player to score in bunches.
As if she didn’t do enough, Bell even set a ball during the game which got some grins from her team, considering its not her usual position.
“Not officially," Bell said, in regards to playing the setter role. "But I do enjoy setting quite a bit and it was an instinct to jump and take it.”
Her teammate, Esterley, was not surprised by Bell's versatility.
“We always make the joke of what can't Ava do,” Esterley said.
Throughout the season, Bell and Esterley have worked together in the middle and formed a solid relationship. Bell has looked up to her captain and taken bits of advice along the way, to help her transition as a first-year.
"'Trust yourself and go quick,'” Bell mentioned Esterley saying to her. “'You have to decide and go and trust yourself and if you’re wrong, you’re wrong, move on to the next ball.'”
The duo's emergence in ACC play is promising as the team marches forward through conference play.
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