In most sports, increased pressure reveals what players are truly capable of, and the North Carolina volleyball team is no exception.
UNC’s tenacity was tested during its first five-set match of the season in a thrilling 3-2 victory over the undefeated Arizona Wildcats at Carmichael Arena on Saturday night.
Entering the weekend matchup, UNC had played just one four-set game: a season-opening 3-1 loss to Colorado State.
“The first game to five sets is always the most intimidating,” junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler said. “But we did it. I’m really proud of us.”
Coming off a 3-0 routing of South Carolina the previous night, the Tar Heels looked to continue their dominance and jumped out to an early 10-3 lead in the first set. But the Wildcats clawed their way back, and soon UNC found itself clinging to a one-point lead late in the set.
Despite North Carolina taking the first set, 25-20, Arizona regained composure in the second and strung together a few short runs — an early sign that this wouldn’t be an easy victory for UNC.
“When things weren’t going well, we just tried to have them calm down, focus and realize that they were actually playing pretty well,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “But Arizona just played great.”
The Wildcats’ stellar all-around play was reflected in the numbers: a .305 hitting percentage to North Carolina’s .214, along with 11 blocks to UNC’s eight. But while it’s important to point out the Tar Heels’ lackluster hitting — something Merkler says the young players are rapidly improving — it’s equally key to note how the players responded to lost points.
Up 23-21 in the third set, the Tar Heels had failed yet again to read Arizona setter Emery Herman’s deceptive tip. The soft shot bounced onto the hardwood and into sophomore hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster’s hands, who immediately slammed the ball down in frustration.
But just as quickly as it appeared, Shaffmaster’s outburst dissipated when she circled up with her teammates in encouragement. Shortly after, UNC took the set, 25-23.
“There wasn’t any point during the entire game where I felt our energy drop,” Merkler said. “We were always ready to bounce back — going point for point is what we’re here for.”
Fast-forward to the final set, and UNC led, 11-9. Redshirt first-year Carson Overbeck committed a service error. But after another supportive huddle, kills from first-year setter Anita Babic and senior middle hitter Skyy Howard gave North Carolina its largest lead of the set.
“We just found a way to compete with joy and know that we have each others’ backs,” senior hitter Carly Peck said.
And when Shaffmaster had another service error at a 14-11 match point, Howard — who hadn’t seen the floor until the fourth set — spiked the game-winning point on the subsequent rally.
“I’m so proud of Skyy and Carly for coming off the bench in the fourth set and making some positive plays,” Sagula said. “We give them a lot of credit as veterans.”
While the seniors in Howard and Peck made the final push that the Tar Heels needed in the final sets, steady play from Babic provided consistent offense throughout the match. The Phoenix, Ariz. native finished with a team-high 37 assists.
A pair of victories on Friday and Saturday — one dominant and the other tightly contested — gave the team a taste of what’s to come this season. With a loaded ACC featuring three top-10 teams in Louisville, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, UNC will certainly face its challenges when conference play begins in three weeks.
But whether it was the rookie Babic, former ACC Freshman of the Year Shaffmaster or experienced seniors like Peck and Howard, each Tar Heel gained invaluable preparation time from the win over Arizona.
“Hopefully this match can matter even more moving forward,” Peck said.
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