The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday September 28th

Preview: UNC volleyball looks to build on last season, faces tough 2022 schedule

In the Sept. 18 game against Davidson, freshman outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) serves the ball. UNC won three out of three sets.
Buy Photos In the Sept. 18 game against Davidson, freshman outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) serves the ball. UNC won three out of three sets.

After finishing sixth in the ACC last season with a 21-9 record and securing its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016, North Carolina's volleyball team enters the 2022 season with high expectations.

The Tar Heels open their non-conference schedule with a road trip to Colorado, where they will face Colorado State, UC Santa Barbara and Northern Colorado on Aug. 26 and 27. Last season, both the Colorado State Rams and the Gauchos of Santa Barbara finished second in their respective conferences. Northern Colorado — with an impressive 24-win season  — won the Big Sky Tournament last year.

When Colorado State traveled to Chapel Hill last September, UNC overcame a 2-0 deficit to narrowly escape in five sets. The Rams’ defense, which recorded six blocks and 55 digs in that last meeting, will likely test the Tar Heels’ offense again this year.

Before starting conference play, the Tar Heels will have two more opportunities to gauge their ability with back-to-back September tournaments. On Sept. 9 and 10,  they will play Michigan and Michigan State in Carmichael Arena as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. A week later, the team will travel to the VCU Invitational to face off against Old Dominion, VCU and UMBC.

There’s not much of a break for North Carolina once it begins conference play, as three of their first four opponents finished within the top five of the ACC in 2021.

The Tar Heels start with a challenging road matchup against Pittsburgh, which finished second in the ACC in 2021 with a 30-4 record. UNC then travels to Virginia and plays host to Miami and Florida State. This four-game stretch will be critical for the Tar Heels to stay in the mix of the ACC’s top teams early in the season.

Another pivotal four-game stretch will come later in November when UNC hosts Louisville and plays three road games against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

The Tar Heels will have to adjust to life without some of their former key players, notably now-graduated Nia Robinson, last season's leader in kills. Other departures include hitters Emily Zinger and Amanda Phegley, setters Meghan Neelon and Annabelle Archer and defensive specialist Ryan Shannon. Zinger and Phegley tied for the team’s fourth-most kills last season, while Neelon led the team in assists.

However, UNC still returns many key contributors and brings in several promising transfers and first-year players. The Tar Heels return ACC Freshman of the Year Mabrey Shaffmaster, who led the team with a total of 436.5 points and finished with the fifth-most blocks. Shaffmaster will likely have to increase her production, as two of the Tar Heels’ top-four leaders in kills from 2021 have left the team.

Junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler, who finished the 2021 season ranked third on the team in kills, will return and help fill the void hitting void left by Robinson, Phegley and Zinger. In addition to Merkler, the Tar Heels added hitting help with the transfer arrival of former two-time All-ACC outside hitter Charley Niego from Notre Dame, who led the Fighting Irish in kills in three of her four years with the program.

On the defensive side, UNC returns starting libero and 2021 digs leader senior Karenna Wurl. Although the return of Merkler ensures the team will be with its leading blocker, the Tar Heels lost their second and third-leading blockers in Phegley and Zinger. The team will need senior middle hitter Skyy Howard — who finished fourth on the team in blocks last season — to help fill the blocking production gap left by the departing players.

UNC starts its season on Friday, Aug. 19 at 5 p.m. with the blue and white scrimmage before hosting an exhibition game against High Point on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 1 p.m.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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