Coming off a 10-8 pandemic-ravaged season, the 2021 North Carolina volleyball team will look to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
Last year’s squad carried a 10-4 record into the final week of the season before dropping its last four matches, including three to ranked opponents. So, the Tar Heels know they need to finish stronger to make a push for the postseason. A combination of returning veterans and impact transfers might give head coach Joe Sagula what he’s looking for.
Senior setter Annabelle Archer returns and joins graduate setter Meghan Neelon, who transferred from Alabama, to give the Tar Heel hitters the chance to bury the ball. Archer led the team in assists a year ago, while Neelon brings both talent and experience as a former Under Armour All-American and starter in Tuscaloosa.
Archer and Neelon will look to set up graduate outside hitter Nia Parker-Robinson, who transferred from Northwestern. Parker-Robinson led the Wildcats in hitting percentage at .423 a year ago and ranked 10th in the Big Ten in that category in 2019.
Expect Parker-Robinson — along with junior middle blocker Skyy Howard and graduate right side Emily Zinger, a transfer from the University of San Francisco — to dominate at the net. Howard led the Tar Heels in blocks per set a season ago, and sophomore hitter Kaya Merkler, a state champion and playoff MVP at nearby Chapel Hill High School, led UNC in total blocks.
In the back, junior defensive specialist Karenna Wurl and junior outside hitter Parker Austin should lead the team in digs. Wurl and Austin ranked second and third, respectively, in that category in 2019, and were the team leaders last season. Wurl also possesses service versatility, leading the Tar Heels with 20 aces in 2020. Archer and sophomore outside hitter Aziah Buckner finished tied for third in aces last year with 12 apiece.
Part of North Carolina’s struggles a season ago came from a tremendously tough final stretch, when the Tar Heels faced four ranked opponents in their final five games. Although they split a weekend series with No. 14 Duke earlier in the season and beat No. 18 Notre Dame 3-2 a few months later, matches against No. 25 Florida State, No. 19 Pittsburgh and No. 13 Louisville back to back to back ended up dooming UNC’s postseason hopes.
This year’s slate doesn’t look any easier, but North Carolina should have some good early season preparation this weekend at the SMU Tournament in University Park, Texas, where the Tar Heels will face Stephen F. Austin, Pacific and host-school SMU.
UNC can then tune things up in three home matches across two days versus Colorado State, Wofford and East Carolina before heading to the Great Lakes State to take on Michigan State and Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
After the trip north, North Carolina will play home matches against three in-state opponents — Elon, Charlotte and Davidson — before hosting Pittsburgh, the preseason No. 7 team in the country and runaway ACC favorite, in its conference opener. The Tar Heels will also face rival Virginia in Carmichael Arena to finish out September.
October opens with a trip to the Sunshine State, where UNC will face Miami and Florida State. North Carolina will then return home to host Wake Forest and Virginia Tech before heading to the Northeast to take on Boston College and Syracuse.
Perhaps the biggest weekend on the schedule awaits the Tar Heels when they return from New York. Rival N.C. State will venture to Carmichael Arena for an unusual Wednesday night game on Oct. 20 before the other Tobacco Road school, Duke, comes to town that Friday evening. UNC will then finish October with a trip to Georgia Tech and Clemson.
The season’s final month starts at home versus Notre Dame and Louisville, but then the Tar Heels head north to face Virginia Tech and Virginia. The penultimate game at home versus Miami on Senior Day will then set the stage for the regular season finale at Duke.
Finding their way into the NCAA Tournament is not out of reach for the Tar Heels, but they’ll have to finish this season stronger than the last one to make it possible.