It was a chilly afternoon when the North Carolina volleyball team iced out Appalachian State in just three sets in Carmichael Arena, but the Tar Heels couldn’t have been warmer when it came to cheering on their teammates, new and old.
It was 2010 when the Tar Heels last faced the Mountaineers, and on Thursday, they were ready to continue defending their undefeated home record against Appalachian State. Despite only a few team guests in the stands, Carmichael Arena was buzzing with North Carolina’s energy from the excitement of getting back on the court after a long winter break.
The match started with the Mountaineers scoring the first two points, the only lead they would hold for the set. These points were quickly made up by the Tar Heels with kills from junior Amanda Phegley, and some solid blocks by sophomore Skyy Howard. Serving up some more points for the Tar Heels was sophomore Karenna Wurl, with two nearly consecutive aces later in the set.
“Our serving was phenomenal, and Karenna was amazing,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “I thought she was our best server. We had six aces overall, but it felt like we had more because we took them out of their game a lot.”
The second set began much like the first, with the Mountaineers earning the first couple of points. But once again, the Tar Heels made up the lost ground and then some. UNC went on a 9-2 run to close the set, in which sophomore Parker Austin dealt three consecutive kills. Austin had a total of nine kills for the night, contributing heavily to the team’s .466 hitting percentage, their best since 2017.
At the start of the third and final set of the match, the Tar Heels started with three kills by first-year Aziah Buckner, Howard and senior Aristea Tontai. Although the Mountaineers' McCall Denny had many hard kills, her efforts weren’t enough to stop North Carolina from crushing any hopes of a comeback. The Tar Heels took the final set, 25-13, in Thursday's 3-0 sweep.
“When you have the first set, and you win, and you win the second, and you’re up 2-0, there’s a tendency to let up in the third set,” Sagula said. “But we did not. That sets up an important mindset for the team going forward. One of the goals for this team is if we feel that we are in control, we need to learn how to finish.”
The real commotion came not from the court, but from the North Carolina bench. After a kill, block, or anything positive for the Tar Heels, a loud response could be heard from those on the sidelines. When the announcer would declare that UNC got a kill, the Tar Heel bench would respond with a resounding, “Keel!” This cheer and others were constant throughout the match.
“It’s so great out there,” Austin said. “Especially when you’re playing really well, it’s so easy to have fun.”
A chorus of “Yay-Yuhs” and “Zings” erupted from the players during the match, the latter referring to Tar Heel newcomer, senior Emily Zinger. Zinger, who had three kills and three blocks, joined the Tar Heels in 2021 after transferring from the University of San Francisco. Thursday was her debut for UNC.
“Even though she’s only been here for a month, she already fits perfectly with the team,” Wurl said. "It was great to see her kill it tonight.”
For a team set to enter ACC play in just a few weeks, the Tar Heels looked to be a unit on Thursday. From what Zinger has told Austin, the most exciting aspect of Chapel Hill — aside from the winning — for her new teammate? The food.
“(Zinger) was so pumped,” Austin said. “We were talking about all the food we get, and she was like, ‘We get our water bottles filled, we get shoes, we get snacks, we are set for life.'”