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.”
Sagula also credited his team’s middle hitters and their role in creating momentum change throughout the sets.
“Our middles were dominant tonight,” Sagula said. “I told everyone before, ‘If our middles can get off, we’ll be really good.’”
Both UNC’s right and middle hitters played a large role in the majority of the team’s eight blocks — including five in the last set — coming at crucial times to break Duke’s scoring streaks.
Four of those blocks came from junior middle Amanda Phegley, who also ended the night with a hitting percentage of .600.
“I’m really excited for her — that’s why she came to Carolina,” Sagula said. “She transferred in to have a match like tonight.”
Phegley, however, said her focus is on the team's next match against the Blue Devils on Sunday.
“I think coming out with a fresh mindset (is important),” Phegley said. “Realizing that this game doesn’t impact (the next) game, and making sure that we still come out strong and not rely on this win.”
While the Tar Heels take on Duke again this Sunday in Carmichael Arena, the team battling its way back from a large deficit at home against their rival is something the Tar Heels will never forget, Sagula said.
“It was hard to watch, I will say, when we were in that first part of the game,” Sagula said. “I’m so proud of how they fought through that.”
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