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Sunday December 5th

UNC volleyball sweeps Duke 3-0 to extend six-game winning streak

Junior middle blocker Skyy Howard (8) celebrates at the volleyball game against  Duke on Oct. 22 at Carmicahel Arena. UNC won 3-0.
Buy Photos Junior middle blocker Skyy Howard (8) celebrates at the volleyball game against Duke on Oct. 22 at Carmicahel Arena. UNC won 3-0.

After losing four conference matches in a row, improved camaraderie has contributed heavily to the North Carolina volleyball team’s new winning streak.

On Friday night, in a rivalry match against Duke, that sense of togetherness was on display as the Tar Heels extended their streak to six games, dominating the Blue Devils in a 3-0 sweep.

“They like each other,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “They genuinely do.”

Since most UNC students were on fall break, the stands saw a nearly equal number of Tar Heel and Blue Devil fans. However, fervor from UNC players both on and off the court rejuvenated the palpable energy Carmichael Arena is known for.

After a tightly contested opening set, the Tar Heels dominated the Blue Devils, 25-13, during set two, which included a 9-1 scoring run after UNC graduate right side hitter Emily Zinger was injured and junior Carly Peck was subbed in.

“When Zinger got hurt, I think everyone just got really really mad," first-year Mabrey Shaffmaster said. "And we kind of just took off from there."

Zinger has made notable contributions this season in kills and blocks, ranking fourth and second respectively on the team in those categories.

Despite a potential absence looming, Shaffmaster is confident in the team’s ability to adjust.

“I know that Carly Peck can definitely step up and do her job,” Shaffmaster said. “Zinger is a really big part of this team. She brings a lot of energy. But at the same time, I think Carly can do the same, and she’s more than capable of doing it.”

The supportive atmosphere sometimes even extends beyond the team. Despite the rivalry between the two schools, Friday’s match was also a display of competition between friends on both teams.

UNC sophomore Kaya Merkler, a Chapel Hill native, said she enjoyed matching up with Duke senior Ade Owokoniran, who is from Raleigh. Last Tuesday, Merkler was named ACC Co-Player of the Week, and Owokoniran led Duke on Friday with seven kills and 28 attacks.

Merkler said the two have played with each other over the years because they're from nearby areas.

“So it’s always a really competitive mindset for myself to go up, especially Ade," Merkler said. "I love her. She’s great. She’s such an amazing player, but since she’s on my side blocking me, I always make it a little challenge for myself to see how many balls I can win.”

During the Tar Heels’ winning streak, Sagula also said one of the main attributions for the team’s success is improved ball movement and praised several Tar Heels for their performances Friday night.

“What it really comes down to is the fact that our passing is much better,” Sagula said. “That’s allowed us to sustain our level. One of the key reasons for that is the passing of Karenna Wurl, Olivia Diaz and Mabrey Shaffmaster. We’re able to get the ball to Kaya Merkler, Skyy Howard and Amanda Phegley.”

North Carolina has not won more than 15 games since 2016, when the team finished 29-4. This year, UNC has already won 17 games, with eight left to play.

Sagula noted that team synergy felt and seen in this season has separated it from previous ones.

“They work really hard to create connections and become a great team,” Sagula said. “It sounds like a cliché word, but the theme of this team is to out-team. It’s to be better as a collective unit than any one individual."

After playing four matches in eight days, UNC will spend the next week preparing for their conference showdown with No. 13 Georgia Tech on Friday. Sagula says UNC will need to elevate their level of play to challenge the ACC powerhouse in Atlanta. 

But for now, the Tar Heels will take some well-deserved time off to recover as a team and celebrate their successes together.

“You’re my idol,” Merkler told Shaffmaster during a light-hearted press conference. “Quote that, please!”

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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