If you look around Carmichael Arena, you’ll stumble upon a sign that reads, “Playing at Carolina is an honor, winning at Carolina is a tradition.” And on Sunday, the North Carolina volleyball team did just that.
Following a win against Wake Forest on Friday to snap a four-game losing streak, a 3-0 win over Virginia Tech wrapped up a successful weekend for the Tar Heels.
“We needed to play well, we wanted to play well at home, so that was significant, and we wanted to see how we challenged the team to play their best,” head coach Joe Sagula said.
The team's high hopes became a reality as it picked up its second ACC win of the season, setting a new season best hitting percentage at .433 while several players recorded new career and season bests.
“We did what we had to do to come out on top of Wake Forest on Friday, but Saturday we really took the time to focus all on Virginia Tech,” said junior Skyy Howard. “We had to put all of our energy into what it was going to take to beat them because it’s different with every team.”
The first set could have gone either way. It started off close, but the Tar Heels pulled through and took the lead. First-year Mabrey Shaffmaster was a dominant player in the game from the time she stepped on the court, contributing five aces en route to a 25-8 victory.
Going into the second set, the Tar Heels started strong, but Virginia Tech refused to back down after the first loss. With nine ties and four lead changes, the teams were neck-and-neck up until the end of the set. During this nerve-wracking set, UNC fans tried to rally the team by singing “Sweet Caroline” during timeouts.
“Sometimes we can put it on cruise control and just think they’re going to roll over and lose because we beat them in the first set, and that’s never the case in college volleyball,” Shaffmaster said. “You have to try your hardest every single time you play someone, so I think we were just like, ‘Okay, they’re a good team, we have to focus up and keep playing hard,’ and that showed in the third set too.”
Graduate transfer Nia Robinson proved to be a crucial player for North Carolina in this set. Her three consecutive kills toward the end of the set put the score at 24-21, and though the Hokies were able to squeeze in two more points, Howard clinched the set for North Carolina with a 25-23 finish.
After an intense second set, the third set seemed to be less challenging as North Carolina won by yet another dominant score, 25-8. Following a close loss, Virginia Tech came into the third and final set strong, but the Tar Heels swiftly drifted away from the Hokies. Shaffmaster and Robinson each ended the final set with four kills and Howard ended with three.
The Marching Tar Heels celebrated the victory by playing the Fight Song as the team joined the crowd in singing alone as they swayed from right to left.
The game against Virginia Tech demonstrates the Tar Heels can still play winning volleyball despite the previous four-game losing streak. It also displayed the potential of several players, as Robinson led the team with 18 kills, Howard had a team-best three blocks and Shaffmaster set three new career highs with five service aces, 20 digs and three assists.
After opening conference play winless, the weekend served as a chance for the Tar Heels to come back home and reset, and to restore some confidence as they got back in their groove.
“To see us go out there and play how we’ve been playing the last couple of games knowing that wasn’t us, it’s just frustrating not being able to show people what we can do,” said Howard. “But we’re doing a really good job at getting back to ourselves, putting all we have out there on the court and just playing Carolina volleyball.”
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