UNC volleyball team still learning after mixed results in ACC weekend opener
Every team has its highs and lows, and this weekend was no exception for North Carolina volleyball.
After sweeping Virginia on Friday to open up ACC play, the Tar Heels fell to No. 8 Pitt in the same manner in their first home loss of the season on Sunday afternoon.
Having to prepare for another weekend match after a Friday game is a quick turnaround, but head coach Mike Schall noted that the team has gotten used to the routine.
"I thought our preparation was good," Schall said after Sunday's loss. "It was what it had to be. And we were ready."
After an impressive performance to open up conference play, the matchup against Pitt served as a temperature check for North Carolina, which entered Sunday undefeated at home. Despite the loss, UNC showed that it can compete against some of the top teams in the country.
“I think that these games are definitely the most fun to play just because there's so much high energy and so much riding on the game, and everyone wants it so bad,” sophomore setter Anita Babic said. "But I love moments like this. I think that it's so fun to compete against such a good team.”
In Sunday's opening set, North Carolina and Pitt were tied at 22 points apiece. But a crucial Panther block on graduate outside hitter Emani' Foster's attack shifted momentum in favor of Pitt, and the Panthers won the next two points to take the first set, 25-22.
Pitt's blocking abilities emerged as a theme throughout Sunday afternoon, as the Panthers recorded 12 blocks to UNC's six.
After the Tar Heels out-blocked the Cavaliers on Friday, struggling to break through Pitt's front line was a noticeable change in pace, with UNC posting just a .111 hit percentage.
"[Pitt's] relentless at the net," Schall said. "They're going to keep blocking balls and we need to keep covering balls, and I thought today's match made us better."
Even though North Carolina did not claim a set, the tight opening frame served as a silver lining to the Tar Heels' ability to make in-game adjustments in battles against elite programs.
Junior outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster emphasized the importance of keeping opposing teams on their toes and causing them to pivot at a moment’s notice. She led UNC in kills on both Friday and Sunday with 16 and 11, respectively.
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“It's like you make one little adjustment and you communicate a little bit more, and the other team has to change everything they're doing because it's like, ‘Oh crap, like they actually scouted us too,’” she said.
Another highlight from this weekend was sophomore middle blocker Sadie Swift, who achieved a career-high nine blocks against Virginia and effectively neutralized several of the Cavaliers' heavy swings.
Swift has emerged as a key piece in North Carolina's front line this season, leading the team with 50 blocks. The Austin, Texas native only played 16 total sets last year — she's played in all 40 sets this season.
“It feels good to just shut [Virginia] down and help our defense by just getting touches,” Swift said.
As this weekend showed, adjusting to different teams' style of play will be a key factor as the Tar Heels continue conference play. Despite the mixed results, Schall is looking forward to the rest of the season with this team.
“I love the fact that we competed really hard today [against Pitt], and I'm really proud of our kids, too,” he said with a smile. “I wouldn't trade ‘em.”