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Wednesday December 7th

'Extremely valuable': Graduate outside hitter Charley Niego brings experience to UNC

UNC graduate Charley Niego (5) spikes a ball early in the first set of the volleyball match against Boston College on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. UNC won 3-0.
Buy Photos UNC graduate Charley Niego (5) spikes a ball early in the first set of the volleyball match against Boston College on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. UNC won 3-0.

She calls herself the "grandma" of the team.

UNC graduate outside hitter Charley Niego is North Carolina volleyball's most experienced player. She is exercising her fifth year with the Tar Heels after playing for four years at Notre Dame. 

The "grandma" nickname, Niego said, comes from her calm demeanor, consistent play and willingness to help out any of her teammates — whether that be cheering for the Tar Heels on the court or offering them advice off of it. After graduating eight players last season, North Carolina needed a reliable veteran on the court this year, and Niego — a four-time All-ACC selection — has become exactly that.

Before moving to North Carolina, Niego said she had never lived outside of the midwest bubble. She was born and raised in Chicago and earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame.

Though her first official visit to Chapel Hill was in January, Niego she was surprised at how green everything was. After hearing the Bell Tower chimes and seeing the bustling energy in the Pit, she knew UNC would be her home away from home.

Niego and the Fighting Irish played UNC annually in ACC play. When they met during Niego’s junior year, the Tar Heels forced the Fighting Irish to five sets in a 3-2 victory — leading Niego and Notre Dame to lose the conference. With 21 kills during the matchup, Niego gained a new appreciation for the Tar Heels’ grit.

“I was very disappointed," Niego said. "But now that I look back at it, I totally get it now. They were training everyone to be able to play anything, anytime and overcoming that adversity.”

Later, in fall 2021, Niego was being recruited by UNC when she played against the Tar Heels. Caught between the two teams, Niego recorded nine kills and four service aces to sweep the Tar Heels, 3-0.

“She always played really well against us,” UNC head coach Joe Sagula said. “I certainly would rather have her playing with us than having to play against her again.”

UNC needed Niego's consistent kills after losing key hitters in Nia Robinson and Emily Zinger last season.

Through the team's Oct. 16 matchup against Syracuse, Niego ranks second on the team in kills with 212 and second in digs with 185. She has also emerged as a contributor in big games, recording twelve games with 10 or more kills — including a season-high 20 against Charlotte in early September.

To fully assume her role as the vet — and "team grandma" — Niego established especially strong relationships with the first-years on the team, claiming they "keep her young." She also takes extra time stretching during warm-ups, groaning “I’m just not young like you all anymore.”

“With a young team, it can get all over the place,” senior libero and defensive specialist Karenna Wurl said. “Just having that player that can ground everyone has been super valuable.”

The experience that solidified Niego’s bond with her new squad was The Program, a leadership development clinic that UNC completed in its preseason. 

Throughout The Program, the team was given physically-demanding team building workouts. Sagula recalled Niego getting pushed so hard at one point that she stepped aside due to illness before resuming her exercises. 

In another instance, Niego laughed as she recounted helping a first-year that was sandwiched between her and senior middle hitter Skyy Howard during an exercise in which the two used their legs to help prop up their teammates', who were falling down.

“I couldn’t stop laughing,” Niego said. “We were really there for her. It showed the importance of working together.”

At the end of The Program, Niego was paired with sophomore libero and defensive specialist Marissa Meyerhoefer to do burpee sets. Meyerhoefer cheered on Niego while she spent her energy on the set. When it came time to switch, Niego returned the favor enthusiastically.

“Even after she just put herself through that amount of physical toughness,” Meyerhoefer said, “she was right beside me the whole time, pushing me as well.”

Now playing in Carolina Blue, Niego has led by example as an outside hitter who can play all six rotations — versatility that she once admired about the UNC program. Her solid passing defense, serving and positioning landed her Preseason All-ACC honors, and she has consistently been one of the Tar Heels’ top playmakers thus far.

With this grounded presence, Niego brings not just wins to UNC, but joy to the sport.

“She's feeling more and more comfortable and finding this to be her team,” Sagula said. “We're very fortunate to have an experienced player like her who can share her perspective of what it's like to be in the ACC and to grind throughout the season. She is extremely valuable.”

@KaitlynSchmid1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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