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Preview: Three matchups to watch in UNC volleyball's game against Miami

UNC freshman setter Anita Babic (12) blocks the ball during the volleyball match against Michigan State on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at Carmichael Arena.  UNC beat Michigan State 3-0.

After playing on the road for nearly two weeks, the North Carolina volleyball team will return to Carmichael Arena to face the Miami Hurricanes on Friday night.

Last year, the Hurricanes defeated the Tar Heels in both regular season matchups, the latter being a 3-1 win on UNC’s Senior Day. Miami returns three of its four 2021 All-ACC players this season, posing a challenge to a less experienced North Carolina team.

With a 1-1 record in conference play, UNC will look to climb the ACC rankings with a quality win. Here are three head-to-head matchups to pay attention to on the court.

Anita Babic vs. Savannah Vach - Setter

First-year setter Anita Babic has already established herself as the Tar Heels’ primary setter, replacing last year’s graduate setter Meghan Neelon. Ranked as the No. 14 player in the class of 2022 by Prep Volleyball, Babic’s 8.49 assists per set is good for sixth in the ACC.

With Neelon now on the sidelines to mentor Babic as a technical coordinator, the Phoenix native has been encouraged by head coach Joe Sagula to be more aggressive on offense with tip-ins disguised as fake sets. On Friday, these types of plays could help deceive the Hurricanes' front line of blockers. 

Miami senior setter Savannah Vach averaged 10.93 assists per set in her junior campaign, earning her the team’s lone First Team All-ACC selection. She has only continued to facilitate the Hurricanes’ offense this season, already tallying 508 assists through 50 sets — good for second overall in the conference.

Mabrey Shaffmaster vs. Angela Grieve - Outside hitter

North Carolina sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster’s blazing jump serve gave her a team-best 30 service aces last season and also helped her earn ACC Freshman of the Year. However, it’s been a different story this season, as Shaffmaster has only five service aces and a team-high 23 service errors.

Nonetheless, the powerful pin hitter has flourished in her role as UNC’s best attacker, as Shaffmaster’s team-high 3.77 kills per set ranks her at fifth in the conference. On the defensive end, her contributions are also valuable, as her 121 digs rank second on the team.

Redshirt junior outside hitter Angela Grieve leads Miami in kills, and a breakout game from her should serve as a reliable test of UNC’s defense — a unit ranked fifth in the ACC for opponent hitting percentage.

Kaya Merkler vs. Janice Leao - Middle blocker/hitter

Junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler was the most accurate hitter and top blocker for North Carolina last season, which helped her receive Second-Team All-ACC honors. Additionally, the Chapel Hill native’s .350 hitting percentage was sixth-best in the conference.

While she has not been North Carolina’s most accurate hitter this season, Merkler has maintained her commanding presence on the front line, posting a team-high 48 blocks. She has also made contributions on the offensive end, as her 114 kills are good for third on the team.

Miami senior middle blocker Janice Leao was the ACC’s fourth-best blocker last season, averaging 1.35 blocks per set. Similar to Merkler, Leao is an efficient attacker, registering 95 kills on an impressive .381 hitting percentage.

As both teams look to establish the middle, these two opponents could come face-to-face with each other often in Friday's tilt.


@dthports |

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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.