For the past four years, UNC volleyball was stuck in a rut.
Disappointing losses, “middle-of-the-pack” finishes in the ACC and a four-year NCAA Tournament drought all culminated in a sense of needing to win now — especially for a program that, just a decade ago, had seven-straight seasons with at least 20 wins.
“In the beginning, the goal was to make it to the tournament,” first-year outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster said. “I knew that the first day I got here.”
The work toward winning started before the season even began.
For a team bringing in several new faces — with multiple graduate transfer and first-year players joining the team — preseason team activities and a leadership program helped create the strong foundation displayed by this year's squad.
“We spent a lot of time before the season bonding,” sophomore middle blocker Kaya Merkler said. “This allowed us to perform really well on the court.”
The offseason grind reaped immediate benefits for the Tar Heels.
To start the season, North Carolina won its first 11 games, including a marquee victory over archrival Duke and a road win against Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. This hot start marked only the second time in program history that a team started 11-0 or better.
“We kind of surprised ourselves, at the beginning, by winning so often," Merkler said. “It was really fun.”
But the undefeated Tar Heels met their match once ACC play ramped up.
To start off the conference schedule, UNC welcomed No. 4 Pittsburgh to Carmichael Arena on Sept. 24. Despite winning the third set, the Tar Heels were defeated 3-1, which would mark the first of four-straight losses for North Carolina.
“That was a big learning curve for us,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “It allowed us to understand that it’s a team effort and that everybody has a role.”
In response to their coach’s call after that string of losses, the Tar Heels won six straight and swept “rivalry week” with 3-1 and 3-0 wins over N.C. State and Duke, respectively. In the process, “roles” seemed to emerge, and stars were born.
Outside hitters Shaffmaster and graduate transfer Nia Robinson went on a tear, together accounting for over half of the team's total kills during the streak.
“Me and Nia are both really competitive,” Shaffmaster said. “She helped me a lot with what to do and the game plan.”
Sitting at 17-4, the end goal of making it back to the NCAA Tournament seemed in reach. But the Tar Heels continued to view the season game by game, in hopes of preventing any distractions that thoughts of postseason play could create amid a tough ACC schedule — the conference Sagula called the best in the country.
After going 4-4 in the final eight games, UNC finished the regular season 21-8. With key wins over Michigan and Colorado State and a season sweep of Duke, the Tar Heels were awarded an NCAA tournament at-large bid and were matched up against Tennessee in the first round.
“When we got there, it hit me that this is where we’re supposed to be,” Shaffmaster said. “It was not a fluke. We didn’t end up there randomly.”
Despite a disappointing 3-1 loss in the first round, the season proved to be a step in the right direction. Shaffmaster and Merkler earned All-ACC honors, and Shaffmaster was voted as ACC Freshman of the Year. UNC hopes this young core can lead the charge for years to come.
Yet, despite the tournament drought being over, the Tar Heels know the job’s not finished.
“We’ve got to put in more work to get better," Sagula said. "And we can’t take anything for granted."
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