With non-conference play in the rearview mirror, the North Carolina volleyball team will begin its tough slate of ACC matchups on the road Friday night.
The Tar Heels’ first conference opponent will be Pittsburgh, a team that reached the Final Four last season and finished with a 30-4 record. Through 11 games this year, the No. 10 Panthers are 9-2 and recently made a statement by picking up a 3-0 victory over then-No. 5 Ohio State.
After blitzing through the non-conference schedule with a 11-0 record last season, the Tar Heels have been nearly as dominant this fall, as they currently sit at 8-3 with three consecutive wins at the VCU Invitational.
Here are three keys for UNC to pull off the upset:
Contain the pins
Although this might sound like a redundant claim in volleyball circles, shutting down Pittsburgh’s pin hitters will have added importance in Friday’s contest.
The Panthers are led offensively by right-side hitter Courtney Buzzerio, a two-time All-Big Ten selection who spent the first four years of her career at Iowa. The graduate transfer has already made an immediate impact within her new program, recording a team-best 123 kills with an impressive .364 hitting percentage and contributed 15 kills in the win over the Buckeyes.
Joining Buzzerio as a key threat is outside hitter Valeria Vázquez Gomez, who is well on her way to setting career highs in a number of hitting categories. In an enhanced role, she has already racked up 113 kills and has been equally productive on defense with 64 digs.
In order to slow the Panthers down, the Tar Heels will likely have to rely on strong blocking from junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler and graduate transfer outside hitter Charley Niego. Merkler has been dominant on the defensive end at times this season, recording six blocks in both games against Michigan State and Michigan, while Niego has been productive throughout her career at containing the line.
The team could also turn to first-year middle hitter Liv Mogridge, who has already received significant playing time while making contributions to the team’s recent string of victories at the VCU Invitational.
Handling Rachel Fairbanks
When the Tar Heels line up against the Panthers, they’ll have to consider the talents of one of the more dynamic players in the country.
After receiving Under Armour Second-Team All-American honors in her high school days, Rachel Fairbanks has become the engine to the Panthers’ offense. Fairbanks started every postseason match at setter in the team’s Final Four run as a first-year last season, which ultimately led to her inclusion on the Pittsburgh NCAA Regional All-Tournament Team.
While Fairbanks’ primary duties involve setting up her teammates – evident in her team-leading 248 assists – she also has the added skill of being a productive front row player when she rotates into that position. Her 51 kills rank fifth on the team, so her role as an offensive threat is something the Tar Heels blockers and back row defensive players must consider.
Withstanding the road environment
As one of the top volleyball programs in the nation, Pittsburgh rarely has trouble filling seats in the compact Fitzgerald Field House, which gives the team a considerable home court advantage.
The Panthers have only lost seven games at home since 2018, and this year’s experienced lineup presents a level of comfort to playing in these types of situations.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag when it comes to playing away from Carmichael Arena. After two early losses in Colorado, the team swept through its most recent road trip and only dropped a single set.
Although the atmosphere in Pittsburgh will likely resemble something similar to what the team saw at Colorado State – where nearly 6,000 fans were in attendance – than the small crowds at VCU, the environment could serve as a litmus test for where the team stands in high-pressure situations.
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