The North Carolina volleyball team opened its season on Friday, winning both games of a doubleheader at the SMU Doubletree Invitational in University Park, Texas.
The Tar Heels started the day off with an 11 a.m. EST match against Stephen F. Austin.
UNC quickly got out to a 12-4 lead in the first set, helped in part by sloppy play from SFA that led to five errors. From there, the team maintained the lead for the first set victory, holding off a run by the Lumberjacks that cut the Tar Heels’ lead to just two points.
The second set was more contentious as Stephen F. Austin built up a 10-7 lead, but three straight kills, an ace and an SFA error gave the Tar Heels a lead which they wouldn’t relinquish. UNC finished the match in three sets, winning the third 25-22.
Later in the day, the Tar Heels were back on the court to face the University of the Pacific.
UNC comfortably won the first set 25-17 and were leading 16-13 in the second before a six-point run by Pacific pushed the momentum to the Tigers’ favor. After head coach Joe Sagula called a timeout, the Tar Heels surged back with six points of their own, eventually taking the set 25-22.
UNC looked to finish the game in the third, but the team couldn’t quite get it done, dropping its first set of the day 25-22. But the team came out with a vengeance for the fourth, dominating all the way through to win 25-16.
Who stood out?
Setter Meghan Neelon, a graduate transfer from Alabama, led all players in assists with 43 across the two games.
Sophomore Kaya Merkler, last season’s team leader in blocks, continued to do what she does best. The 6-foot-3 hitter racked up three solo blocks and five block assists across the two games, and she also led the team in kills against SFA with 11.
Graduate outside hitter Nia Parker-Robinson struggled against SFA with a hitting percentage of just .045, but shined against Pacific. The transfer from Northwestern rebounded in a big way against Pacific though, leading the team with 14 kills.
Emily Zinger, a right side hitter who transferred from San Francisco, tallied nine kills in both games.
When was it decided?
While none of the sets in the sweep of SFA were a blowout, the Tar Heels seemed to have control of the match firmly in their hands after going up two sets to none. The Lumberjacks refused to go down without a fight though, and led 19-17 late in the third set. UNC would go on to win eight of the subsequent 11 points, ending the match with a kill from Zinger off an assist from Neelon.
The Tar Heels didn’t seem to enjoy dropping the third set to Pacific.
The teams traded blows to start the fourth set, but UNC proceeded to win four-straight points and they didn’t look back from there, eventually winning the set by nine points.
Why does it matter?
The Tar Heels are looking to rebound after finishing last season with four straight losses for an overall record of 10-8. These two quality wins were a good way to start off their 2021 campaign, and they look to carry the momentum into tomorrow’s match against Southern Methodist.
The Mustangs are not a team to take lightly. They beat Pacific in three sets earlier in the day and are consistently players in the American Athletic Conference, not to mention having the home-court advantage from their campus.
The graduate transfer trio of Neelon, Zinger and Parker-Robinson were also bright spots for UNC, all of whom have already proven their worth to the team after transferring into the program this year.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels will face off against host team SMU at 2 p.m. Sunday for their final game of the tournament.
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