With the rest of the sports world slowly returning to normalcy and spring sports happening on schedule, there was still an anomaly in UNC athletics: the North Carolina volleyball team.
For the first time in program history, there was regular season play in the spring, thanks to the conditions brought on by COVID-19 — and this was true of all of UNC's fall sports. The fall season, itself, started nearly a month later than usual, only to be halted in November and revived in February.
For players and coaches, this season was unforgettable.
“Without question, in 40 years of coaching, this was the most unique situation ever,” head coach Joe Sagula said.
Sagula pointed to the uncertainty of the fall as a challenge to his team, especially in the beginning, when the possibility of having a season at all was in question. The Tar Heels did compete, having a successful fall with a 6-2 record — however, the extended break in the winter proved to be the greater challenge.
At that point of the season, it was “more than just volleyball,” for Sagula’s team.
“We’ve never had that much time off from competition to going back,” Sagula said. “What we were trying to do was give (the players) some rest from the physical drain of the fall, the mental drain of dealing with COVID, the isolation we all felt, and then come back to train again in the spring.”
The mental aspect of this season was a point of emphasis for the players.
“It was hard to be mentally prepared for what was coming,” senior middle blocker Aristea Tontai said. “It was so much uncertainty and so many unknown factors, and it was a little bit of a mind game in the beginning.”
However, COVID-19 was not the only obstacle in the Tar Heels’ way.
The team was riddled with injuries throughout the season, causing many lineup changes and a greater reliance on its first-years.
“We never had the same people available from one weekend to the next,” Sagula said. “We had concussions, we had back injuries, and we had ankle injuries, which took its toll.”
As a result, numerous players had to fill important roles for UNC.
“I think the player that stepped up the most was Kaya Merkler, a freshman who was a starting middle hitter for us all fall,” Sagula said. “We moved her to outside hitter, and she was very effective.”
Even though this past year will likely be remembered for its hardships, the team also had its uplifting moments and positive takeaways from this season.
For Tontai, her favorite moment of the season was the Senior Day win against No. 18 Notre Dame.
“It was just an amazing day from the beginning to the end,” Tontai said. “We all played really hard, and it was the best game we had all year.”
For junior setter Annabelle Archer, her positive takeaway was her team's ability to adjust to this bizarre season.
“We had people playing way different positions and running completely different lineups," Archer said. "And I think that we’ll take away that whatever circumstances are thrown at us, we can adapt to it.”
For next season, UNC volleyball hopes to take what it learned this past year to be even better next fall — but Sagula knows that can only happen if the team is healthy.
“I look forward to being healthy and having more depth,” Sagula said. “I feel really confident that we won’t have to count on three or four freshmen because they would have a year of experience. Experience is going to be very important for us.”