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UNC volleyball's energy stymied in 3-0 loss to Michigan

UNC junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler (14) and UNC sophomore Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) block the ball during volleyball match against Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, at Carmichael Arena. Michigan beat UNC 3-0.

Calm, cool and collected.

With over 2,000 people watching from the stands of Carmichael Arena, the composed and experienced Michigan volleyball team dealt North Carolina its first home loss of the season Saturday night with a 3-0 sweep.

Backed by a veteran front line in Jess Mruzik and Jess Robinson to go with seasoned setters in Scottee Johnson and Maddie Dowd, the Wolverines were visibly locked in from the very first point. 

Coming off a narrow 3-1 loss at Duke the previous night — Michigan’s first of the season — the Wolverines’ unwavering focus seemed to affect UNC’s usual youthful energy.

“We played to (Michigan’s) flat energy, which they can thrive off of,” senior middle hitter Skyy Howard said. “But that’s not how we play.”

To hear any player tell it — be it junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler or sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster — the Tar Heels play their best volleyball when they’re happy.

But Saturday night was an example of North Carolina’s lack of energy and experience affecting its cohesion. Miscommunication after miscommunication and one service error after another led to the Tar Heels quickly finding themselves down two sets to none after narrowly dropping the second set 26-24.

“We could’ve played more as a team and communicated more,” first-year setter Anita Babic said. “We could’ve kept the energy up.”

Still, UNC tried to keep pace with Michigan. But right after graduate outside hitter Charley Niego registered her seventh and final kill of the night, igniting the home crowd, first-year libero Maddy May committed a service error and Michigan held onto a firm 22-19 lead in the third set.

Two more kills from Merkler helped the Tar Heels cut the lead down to 24-23, forcing Michigan head coach Mark Rosen to call a timeout. But right out of the break, UNC senior outside hitter Parker Austin served the ball into the net, thus ending the match.

“We lost our patience at times and got a little frustrated, which is gonna happen,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “We didn’t slow it down enough. Our rhythm was off in our offense.”

Despite the loss, there seemed to be two silver linings: Babic showed off some deception in the first set, outplaying the Michigan defense twice with impressive set fakes. As teams will keep looking to shut down top attackers Merkler and Shaffmaster, who were held to just 18 kills combined, Babic’s set fakes could provide an alternative scoring option.

“(Sagula) wants me to be more offensive so that the block stays with me and there’s more open spots for the hitters,” Babic said. “And so they have more one-on-ones.”

Additionally, Howard has continued to thrive in her role coming off the bench in the second set, bringing renewed hustle and aggression to the front line. Late in the second set, the Charlotte native had four block assists and two kills that kept UNC’s comeback hopes alive.

“I just wanted to slow (Michigan) down at that point and give our defense a little time to get settled and not be so frantic,” Howard said. “We were all over the place and not really leveled.”

A win over a quality team would have been a big boost to UNC's resume, but despite the outcome, Sagula believes there were some positives to take away from the loss.

“It’s gonna be hard, but that’s what you want,” he said. “We’re gonna learn the most from a mixture of some success and some failure along the way. I’d rather get tested now than against (Pittsburgh), Louisville, Duke or Florida State.”


@dthsports |

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.