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In loss to Duke, UNC volleyball's Joe Sagula denied 800th win for 10th straight match

Joe Sagula

UNC volleyball head coach Joe Sagula looks on in frustration during his team's 3-0 loss to Virginia on Oct. 14.

Joe Sagula knows the importance of looking ahead during a losing streak. 

The head coach of the North Carolina volleyball team (5-17, 1-12 ACC) has endured losing streaks before during his 29 years at the helm of the UNC program.

That's why he stood ready for another chance to snap UNC's nine-game skid Friday night against Duke (14-8, 8-5 ACC), who entered the match on a four-game winning streak.

Perhaps it was the Friday night energy at Carmichael Arena, or the chance to beat Duke on Homecoming Weekend, but the Tar Heels looked hungry for a win. Despite that, UNC dropped its 10th in a row, losing in straight sets.

“It is a Duke game and we’re at home,” redshirt sophomore Katharine Esterley said. “It stings a little bit more. Of course no loss is good, but this one is tough.” 

UNC came out with a new energy that had been lacking in previous games. The first set was neck-and-neck as the lead switched several times between the teams. 

The battle continued with an impressive rally by UNC midway through the first set. Ultimately, it was Duke who pulled ahead and won by the minimum, 25-23. 

The second set vibrated with intensity from both teams as well as the crowd. If UNC could pull it off in the set, it seemed there was a strong chance the team would come out on top. 

The Tar Heels took the lead, 5-3, early on, but it was quickly diminished by the strong Duke offense. Despite late efforts from Esterley and first-years Ava Bell and Destiny Cox, Duke fought for the 25-23 win. 

The third set appeared to be dominated by the Tar Heels, but they were unable to maintain it late in the set. With a 7-1 run, they would eventually take a 14-10 lead against the Blue Devils. 

UNC slipped as Duke rallied back to tie the game at 17-17, and then again at 24-24. In the end, Duke sealed the sweep with a kill by Payton Schwantz, ending the final set, 26-24.

It was her 12th kill of the game that sent UNC away with their 10th loss in a row. 

“It was really unfortunate that we couldn’t get one good play at the end,” Sagula said.

The Tar Heels did not look discouraged. If the frustration of losing three sets by the minimum two points mounted on them, you wouldn’t be able to tell. 

Neither did the look on Sagula’s face indicate worry. 

Sagula has 799 wins as a head coach. He’s coached almost 38 seasons with a resume that includes 14 NCAA tournament appearances, 11 conference titles and five ACC Coach of the Year awards. 

He’s had 10 chances to make it an even 800 wins in the last 10 games. Perhaps each one mounts on him with greater pressure than the last. If it does, he didn't show it.

“We’re playing better volleyball now then we were a few weeks ago,” Sagula said. “I keep telling the team that we’re that close. That we can do this.”

It’s another missed chance for the team comprised of seven first-years, one of whom is Cox, who leads the team with 237 kills.

Still, the team is optimistic. 

“If we keep working hard, it’s gonna come,” junior Mia Fradenburg said.  

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UNC had a will about it throughout the matchup that was evident from start to end. If the adversity this season has taught the Tar Heels anything, it may have been to fight that much harder.

“I’m proud of our team," Sagula said. "They showed some good character, playing hard, never giving up, playing till the last possible point.”

So what’s holding them back? Sagula believes that all six starters are yet to connect.

“We have yet to have all six people on the same page for the entire match,” said the coach. “If we can inspire them to want to play hard the entire time, then I think we’re gonna be able to be a really really good team.”

UNC volleyball has five games left in the 2018 regular season.

It has five more chances to prove what Sagula has said, that there’s a good team behind each unfortunate loss this season.

And at last, five more chances for Sagula to get his 800th win. 

@jillianDTH

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com