Down halfway through the first set, the North Carolina volleyball team looked like a bundle of nerves facing its rival from across town.
The Tar Heels were trailing No. 14 Duke 19-13 at their home opener on Friday, with backcourt miscommunication resulting in a lower hitting percentage and forcing them into a second timeout.
“Our passing was all over, our setting was all over, our offense was all over,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “We just told them to fight through it.”
And fight through it they did.
The Tar Heels emerged from the timeout with a new attitude. A series of five kills by first-year Kaya Merkler and four kills by sophomore Parker Austin propelled a comeback by UNC that resulted in a 26-24 victory in the first set and an eventual 3-1 victory in the match. This moved the team to a 2-1 record on the year.
Sagula said a big part of that momentum shift was due to sophomore libero Karenna Wurl, who ended the match with 24 digs and five assists.
“Karenna stepped up and really helped dominate the serve receive,” Sagula said. “Parker and Aziah (Buckner) and Sydney (Reed) as young players were all struggling, and Karenna solidified us. Then that allowed the others to kind of get their feet under them and get confident.”
Both Sagula and Wurl agreed that when passing improved, the team play as a whole improved, extending into the other sets as well.
“I think I just kind of had to own up to (my mistakes) and take control when it came to communication,” Wurl said. “I think it’s very important for our team to come together after each point. It’s nice to just get a second to all come together and refresh for the new point.”