The North Carolina volleyball team may have several new faces this season, but that hasn’t changed how head coach Joe Sagula and his players approach the game.
After all, some of last year’s key players included transfers Nia Robinson and Meghan Neelon, along with first-year Mabrey Shaffmaster — who was named ACC Freshman of the Year. So integrating new pieces into the rotation is something Sagula has grown accustomed to.
“From day one we just started training everybody and said, ‘Let’s go compete in practice,’” Sagula said.
On Saturday afternoon, UNC’s adaptability and competitive fire was on display in a thrilling five-set exhibition match against High Point. The Tar Heels ultimately won, 3-2, after facing a 2-1 set deficit against the Panthers.
Here are the three main takeaways from the game:
Veteran transfer Charley Niego complements Shaffmaster
After playing against the Tar Heels in a Notre Dame uniform for four years, the graduate outside hitter Niego is bringing experience, durability and aggression to UNC’s attack.
Niego tallied a team-high 50 attacks to go with Shaffmaster’s 43. Last year, Robinson and Shaffmaster led the team in attacks and kills. With Robinson’s departure and Shaffmaster currently taking less swings due to a minor shoulder injury, Niego stepped up to provide offensive pressure.
“I’m really comfortable being one of the primary hitters just because I have a lot of experience playing college volleyball,” Niego said. “I’m just embracing that role on the team.”
Sagula echoed Niego’s sentiments, emphasizing the importance of the outside hitter’s consistent aggression.
“Charley’s going to have to be that grinder for us all season long for us to continue to be successful,” he said.”
Moreover, the chemistry between Niego and Shaffmaster was evident. To hear Shaffmaster tell it, the two outside hitters simply just click.
“We mesh pretty well because I think we have similar personalities,” Shaffmaster said. “It’s just to go out there and kick butt.”
Midway through last season, Sagula elected to play a 5-1 offense, which meant using a primary setter. That setter was Neelon, who finished with 961 total assists.
Against High Point, the Tar Heels continued to run a 5-1 offense, and first-year setter Anita Babic tallied a game-high 30 assists. Ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the class of 2022 by Prep Volleyball, Babic may be the key to replacing to Neelon as the primary setter this season.
“I would think we’d run a 5-1 just because we do have a lot of good people that can play on the right side,” Shaffmaster said. “And our setters are both pretty good at defense, so why not?”
Based on the gameplay in this exhibition, it appears that Sagula will look to keep running the 5-1 offense this fall.
Kaya Merkler and Niego’s leadership
With Robinson, Neelon and Emily Zinger graduating from the program, players like Niego and junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler have assumed more prominent leadership roles this past offseason.
“(Niego) is not the same emotional leader like some of the others,” Sagula said. “But she’s more business-like. It’s gonna take Charley, Mabrey and Kaya to all take some big swings for us.”
As for Merkler — who finished All-ACC Second Team last season and had the sixth-highest hitting percentage in the ACC — Sagula noted her importance in guiding the first-years.
“(Merkler) is more comfortable having a voice on a daily basis,” Sagula said. “She’s really done a great job mentoring the other young middle hitters, like Sadie (Swift) and Liv Mogridge.”
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