With their backs against the wall trailing 24-23 in the fourth set against Florida State on Sunday, the North Carolina volleyball team was in desperate need of forcing a final set. Shortly after, two timely kills and a service error kept the Tar Heels' hopes alive.
But in the final set, the team stumbled out of the gate, which proved to be costly. UNC could neither carry its momentum from the fourth set nor recover from the Seminoles’ early 6-2 run. The Tar Heels wound up losing the set, 15-5, en route to a 3-2 match defeat.
But despite falling just short of victory, the Tar Heels believe they can take a lot of positives from their match, and they believe they're capable of closing out games and competing with the top teams in the ACC.
“I think that sometimes we're a little up and down, but when we bring it, we bring it," junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler said. "This team is all heart.”
Some particular aspects include how the team performed under pressure to win the fourth set or how the Tar Heels responded to Florida State’s massive run in the second set that nearly derailed what once looked like a certain win.
The key for the Tar Heels is figuring out how to "bring it" more consistently, which is much easier said than done.
Merkler pointed to an example when the Tar Heels faced adversity against Virginia last week, coming back from a two-set deficit for a 3-2 victory. Against the Cavaliers, the Tar Heels scored and defended at a much more balanced clip, allowing them to capitalize on big leads and put themselves in manageable situations.
This didn’t happen against the Seminoles, however — in the second set, the Tar Heels narrowly escaped after squandering a nine-point lead. UNC later put itself in a big hole early in the fifth set.
For North Carolina to play more consistently, as it did against Virginia, there are several technical things the Tar Heels and head coach Joe Sagula believe they must do, such as getting side-outs quicker and passing better. Additionally, they also view communication as something they have to work on before they can play up to their potential.
“Listening and hearing are two completely different things,” senior outside hitter Parker Austin said. “So, we just have to listen way more than we hear, and right now, we're just hearing too much.”
The breakdown in communication, Sagula believes, ironically stems from the moments when the Tar Heels are playing at their best. He said in these cases, it's much easier to take the small things that got them there for granted, such as communicating and being intentional about listening to teammates.
Now sitting at 1-3 in the ACC and heading into the bulk of conference play, the Tar Heels will look to improve one day at a time.
“We're going to keep urging the team to just do the little things,” Sagula said. “Things that may not be technical, but just to communicate, call for the ball better, be louder about certain things. Those are the things that are causing problems for us still. They're very fixable, but they take commitment and a lot of energy and a lot of focus.”
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