On Aug. 31, North Carolina volleyball head coach Joe Sagula announced the additions of former players Emily Zinger and Meghan Neelon to his staff.
In the 2021 season, Zinger and Neelon helped the Tar Heels make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016. Zinger, a transfer from the University of San Francisco, played a crucial and versatile role for North Carolina as the right side hitter, posting 144 kills and 53 blocks before suffering a season-ending injury against Duke. Neelon, a transfer from Alabama, tallied almost 1,000 assists to go with 261 digs as UNC’s primary setter.
Although they are no longer suiting up to play, they have already made a difference from the sidelines.
“They have been a wonderful addition to us,” Sagula said. “They’re here every day, put in all the hours that we need and share their perspectives with the team. They connect really well with the players, and it’s been a really impactful opportunity.”
As a volunteer assistant coach, Zinger advises players during practices and games, supporting the team wherever she can. Neelon’s responsibilities as technical coordinator include ensuring all cameras are set up correctly during games and overseeing video production.
“Meghan was especially one of our biggest leaders last year,” senior hitter Carly Peck said. “It’s cool to still be able to have her voice involved in the game. (Neelon and Zinger) both are very competitive and care a lot, so it’s awesome that they have our backs and are like our best friends.”
Outside of her job description, Neelon has made a significant impact by mentoring the first-year setters — Anita Babic and Ella Bostic.
“The setters are very lucky to have (Neelon),” Zinger said. “They look up to her, and you can see the relationship is already forming.”
Although the setters’ lack of collegiate experience has shown itself in low hitting percentages at times — most recently in a five-set thriller against Arizona on Sept. 3 — Sagula and junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler agreed the improvement has been astronomical.
“You can’t get younger than a freshman,” Sagula joked. “You can’t give them a whole year or two of experience right now, you have to be patient. Setters are one of the hardest positions in the game — they don’t get any of the credit for the kills, but they have to set everybody up.”
Neelon’s veteran experience has served as an invaluable asset to instilling confidence in the rookie setters. Babic, who was ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the class of 2022 by Prep Volleyball, is already off to a stellar start, putting up 119 assists in the first five games.
“They’re great kids,” Neelon said. “They’re really eager to learn. I talk them through decision-making and how to connect with hitters better. Being a freshman setter is a lot, so also being that comfortable person for them to lean on when they have questions and stuff like that.”
As of now, it’s uncertain as to how well the North Carolina volleyball team will perform this season. Losing key pieces like Neelon, Zinger and outside hitter Nia Robinson — who notched a team-high 405 kills last season — has been evident in the Tar Heels’ reduced aggression on offense.
But with Zinger and Neelon on the sideline to guide North Carolina’s promising young core, it’s no question that the program is headed in the right direction.
“It’s been so awesome to have them here and knowing their dedication to this program,” Sagula said. “They’re just bringing their personality, work ethic and love for volleyball in that position.”
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