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UNC volleyball shows it needs more fire after 3-0 Friday loss to Notre Dame

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First-year outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) hits the ball over the net during the game against Notre Dame on Nov 5. UNC lost 3-0.

A lack of energy and careless mistakes spelled doom for North Carolina volleyball, as the team was swept, 3-0, by Notre Dame in Carmichael Arena on Friday.

“It felt like it was an emotionally flat match,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “That shouldn’t happen at home.”

Although a sweep may convey otherwise, the teams seemed to be evenly matched for a time, with Notre Dame only winning each set by an average margin of four points. The Tar Heels battled the Fighting Irish down to the very last point, but ultimately, service errors caused momentum swings when they mattered most.

“We just made so many unforced errors,” Sagula said. “We had nine errors and only four aces, and our passing broke down.”

Graduate setter Meghan Neelon added that the team needs improvement on maintaining solid play from start to finish.

“Our serve-receive could’ve been picked up a little bit more,” Neelon said. “I think we just started playing too late in every single set. We need to be better about coming out from the jump and just playing hard early.”

The numbers don’t lie. The Tar Heels are undefeated this season when they win the opening set, but only 4-5 when losing it. Even though the opening set was the closest in the match, ending 25-22, the Tar Heels never led during the set. Notre Dame out-hit UNC .242 to a staggeringly low .079.

“We’ll take tonight to think about what we did wrong, come back in, train hard and prepare for Sunday,” Neelon said.

Sunday’s home match against No. 2 Louisville will unequivocally be the toughest challenge of the year for North Carolina. The Cardinals are 22-0 and have only dropped eight total sets this season.

“Right now, I think the bottom line is we have to go play super aggressive and not worry about the outcome,” Sagula said.

The Tar Heels have been swept twice in the past three matches, and sit at the middle of ACC rankings with a 7-6 record. Ever since their six-game winning streak was snapped by No. 14 Georgia Tech, their only win has been a five-set thriller over the 11-13 Clemson Tigers.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out that missing piece,” graduate outside hitter Nia Robinson said. “Obviously (graduate right side hitter Emily) Zinger was a huge part of our starting lineup and we miss her dearly.”

Zinger was injured during the Oct. 22 match against Duke and has been sidelined ever since. Before her injury, she made significant contributions in kills and blocks, ranking fourth and second, respectively, on the team in those categories.

After Sunday’s match, North Carolina will close out the season with four ACC matches against Virginia Tech, Virginia, Miami and Duke. Both Virginia and Virginia Tech sit at the bottom of the ACC with 1-12 conference records, with Virginia’s sole win being against UNC.

Miami will likely be the most difficult match of the four, as they rank fourth in the ACC with a 10-3 conference record. The Hurricanes defeated the Tar Heels in five sets earlier this season.

And even though the Tar Heels swept the Blue Devils earlier this season, a rivalry matchup on the road means that anything can happen. 

Maybe Friday’s low-energy loss was because of Zinger’s absence, as her on-court presence has shown improved team morale and performance. 

Or maybe it was because first-year star Mabrey Shaffmaster’s kills just couldn’t seem to find the hardwood. Before playing Notre Dame, she averaged over 12 kills per game — Friday night she had five, along with a game-high seven errors.

But regardless of which issues are most prevalent, one thing is clear: North Carolina will have to play with more fire for the final stretch of the season.

“We need to get a little more excited,” Sagula said.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.