Following North Carolina volleyball’s sweep over Virginia on Saturday's Senior Day game, James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” filled Carmichael Arena as the seniors reminisced over their time at UNC.
One of these seniors was middle hitter Skyy Howard, who finished her final game in Chapel Hill with seven crucial kills.
“All my teammates were super supportive of the seniors, and we were playing together, playing for us,” Howard said. “I wanted to go out and have a good game because all my family was here, and I just wanted to show out in my last game (at Carmichael).”
Howard’s performance helped North Carolina establish its dominance from the onset of the match. The Tar Heels scored the first point of Saturday's game and didn’t trail until the beginning of the third set when Virginia scored the first two points. However, with the help of a 3-0 run, UNC quickly regained the lead and seized control of the match once again.
Head coach Joe Sagula said the Tar Heels' performance against the Cavaliers was the team’s most dominant showing all year.
“I wish we were playing more because I felt like this team has finally hit their stride,” Sagula said. “We played inspired. We came out strong. Our serving game was great, our blocking was great. When you can finish on a high note like that, it’s very rewarding.”
Despite North Carolina's domination, Virginia attempted to make its way back into the game multiple times, most notably in the third set.
After relinquishing their lead to UNC, the Cavaliers later managed to get within one point of the Tar Heels several different times in the final set. Each time, though, North Carolina managed to pull away, something the team has previously struggled with.
“I think we just got a little unfocused because we were all sad that it was near the end of the seniors' last game,” sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster said. “It’s happened in the past where we’ve just lost focus a little bit, but (today) we got back and finished it.”
In addition to Howard, Shaffmaster was a key part of how North Carolina was able to hold onto its lead in all three sets against Virginia. In the first set, Shaffmaster led the team with six kills on nine attempts.
Once the Virginia defense began to turn their attention to Shaffmaster and attempt to stifle her offensive production, it opened up the floor for the rest of the team.
“I feel like that’s usually how it goes, where I get several kills in the first set and then they figure me out a little bit,” Shaffmaster said. “That gives our middle hitters a little bit more of an opportunity to get some kills though.”
Though the night was highlighted by Shaffmaster and the celebration of the seniors, the first-year players were able to show off the future of the North Carolina volleyball program.
Setter Anita Babic recorded 30 assists, achieving her 18th 30-plus assist game in her first year with the Tar Heels. She also recorded six digs, while fellow first-year Maddy May recorded nine, both proving to be an integral part of slowing down Virginia.
“I think the future for this program is bright with so many young kids,” Sagula said. “They’ve got a great opportunity to continue to grow and make this program special.”
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