Following one of the most unusual offseasons in the history of college athletics, UNC’s fall sports teams have begun their return to campus.
For the North Carolina volleyball team, head coach Joe Sagula said coming back to Chapel Hill has been cause for excitement, despite the uncertain circumstances.
“I sent an email to everybody on the team and their parents and said, ‘Welcome to the 2020 school year; what a start,” Sagula said. “One thing we want to do is do things the right way and be good examples. If we can do it in our environment, we can hopefully be good role models for other people, other students, other athletes, and we can get through this.”
After the last group of the North Carolina football team completed its return to campus for COVID-19 testing on June 29, campus opened up for all remaining fall athletes on Monday.
Sagula said that the team is returning to campus in segments, with those who have stayed in Chapel Hill and North Carolina over the summer being the first return this week, and out-of-state players slated to return next week. The coach, now entering his 31st season at UNC, said those who have returned got their tests results back on Thursday.
“The test results just came back today, so we’re all negative,” Sagula said. “We’re going to get those who got tested to start working out tomorrow in the weight room. It’s all voluntary right now, but these girls are so anxious and excited to be in the weight room and to work out with their strength coach and have somebody giving them direction; I think that’s the biggest positive here.”
Assistant coach Mike Schall mirrored Sagula’s sentiment that the players seem excited, despite looming uncertainty about the season and potential health concerns relating to COVID-19.
“They haven’t expressed concerns with us, but I think it has been overwhelmingly exciting to get back,” Schall said. “Understanding that we don’t know exactly what is to come. So despite the uncertainty of everything, or whether it’s going to be delayed or whatever, they’ve been excited about coming back.”
After a season in which the Tar Heels turned a 1-7 start to a winning record — due in large part to contributions from young players such as first-years Parker Austin and Skyy Howard — UNC added a strong class of incoming talent.
Among the group of new additions are Sydney Reed — the 2019-20 Virginia State Gatorade Player of the Year — and transfer Niki Khoshatefeh, who earned a spot on the America East Conference All-Rookie team for her efforts at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
With the graduation of key members of last year’s squad such as Mia Fradenburg, who led the team with 371 digs in 2019, and Skylar Wine, the Tar Heels will enter the new campaign with a young group of talent taking on major roles.
Sagula said his staff and returning players have been staying in contact with the newcomers to ensure a smooth transition into the new campaign despite the shortened offseason.
“Our team has reached out to all of our new players and made them feel very welcome and comfortable, and that if they come here they’ll be very well taken care of,” Sagula said. “During these few months a lot of our freshmen and new transfers, they have really gotten acclimated well to our team and the culture and the players.”
With the ACC’s decision to push back the start of competition until at least Sept. 1, what exactly the Tar Heels’ upcoming season will look like remains uncertain. Sagula said his team is still moving forward with its plan to return on Sept. 1, but he’s open to any possibility that will enable the season to not be cut short.
“Between now and then, so much can happen,” Sagula said. “I’m optimistic, but the realistic side of me says I think there will be more limitations on when we start.”
Similar to decisions from the Pac-12 and Big 10 to play all in-conference schedules, Sagula said he could see a similar announcement coming from the ACC. Sagula also noted a potential circumstance in which the season is moved to the spring. But for now, he said his eyes are still set on the current guideline for return until more information is released.
"We're moving forward with the plan that Aug. 1 is the first practice and Sept. 1 is the first day of competition," Sagula said. "I think there's still a number of challenges ahead."
Sagula said that the ACC plans to meet on July 22 and 29, and that those two dates will be key to determining what the season will look like.
“In these next few weeks, the world we know will be determined,” Sagula said. “We’ll probably know in two weeks where things land.”
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