It was the North Carolina volleyball team's defense that helped UNC soar over Duke on Thursday with a tough and gritty performance that had the Blue Devils unable to pull out a set.
Going into conference play with a record of 3-7, the North Carolina volleyball team (15-11, 12-4 ACC) has bounced back, regaining its rhythm on the court with the latest win coming in a 3-0 sweep against its rival (12-18, 5-12 ACC).
Fans piled into Carmichael Arena to see UNC take on the Blue Devils, and the energy pulsed through the stadium from the time the teams stepped onto the court. The Tar Heels gave their fans the show they were looking for, coming back in the first set to win it 26-24, and to seal the game with two 25-20 victories.
Every time UNC’s defense swatted away attempted attacks from the Blue Devils, fans cheered on the Tar Heels and shouted “Block party!”
North Carolina has now out-blocked 12 out of 16 conference opponents, ranking in at second in the ACC for blocks per set and third for total blocks. In Thursday’s game, UNC out-blocked Duke 11-4, led by junior Aristea Tontai with seven blocks of her own.
Tontai has recorded career highs of eight blocks this season in games against Miami of Ohio, Colgate, Miami and Florida State, and is averaging 1.37 blocks per set compared to 0.74 in the 2018 season.
“We changed the way we were blocking in the spring, and it’s been a process that’s lasted as long as the year and it hasn’t been easy,” Tontai said. “In the beginning we were unsure of how it would turn out, and now it’s just turning out great. We have double digit blocks every match. Just amazing.”
Head coach Joe Sagula, who has preached patience all season, noted how the team's process is paying off.
“I think blocking takes a lot of time and we’ve put this system in last spring and we’re starting to see the benefits of it,” Sagula said.
Senior libero Mia Fradenburg recorded 14 digs in Thursday’s game, nearly diving into the scorers’ table on multiple occasions to keep the ball in play.
“Most of those plays are because of blocks working really well, and they’re getting really good touches,” Fradenburg said. “Having people that I know are working just as hard as me, I need to meet them at that same level.”
Fradenburg and Tontai, both upperclassmen, helped set the tone and the example for the younger players on the team, consistently leaving everything on the court.
“I hope we are showing them how to be mature as freshmen and showing them how to get the work done,” Tontai said.
These two players stuck by the team during the 2018 season in which the team went 8-19. They know the patience it takes to build a team and the payoff when things start to work on the court.
After a dominant win over a rival, the effort the older players have given the team was not lost on Sagula.
“I can’t say enough about what they have done," he said, " to allow this program to be what it is this year."
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