Kendra Koetter Photo by Sam Doughton
Coach Joe Sagula knew there was no time for resting.
Coming off the North Carolina volleyball team's second straight weekend split with a win at Clemson and a loss at Georgia Tech, Sagula needed to push his team through to the next level to get the results they needed on the court.
"Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, we just said we're going to work hard, forget about resting, just grind and put in the training hours," Sagula said. "It was just kind of a training mentality week."
The training hours worked, as UNC beat Duke on Friday and Wake Forest on Saturday to complete a weekend sweep and improve to .500 overall for the first time in the 2017 season.
Sagula said that the shift in mentality wasn't through extra hours of practice as a team, but more of a focus on improving individual players' personal games.
"If six people play their roles well, then the team plays well," captain Taylor Leath said. "If everyone is confident in the way that they play, then the team plays well."
What each player spends their time grinding on is different, so the results show up in different ways for each player. After several matches with low hitting percentages, Leath hit .273 with 12 kills on Friday night —her highest hit percentage in an ACC game this season— to lead the Tar Heels to a four set win. She said her work with setters Holly Carlton and Kendra Koetter in practice this week helped her succeed.
"Just trying to get a more consistent ball and also working on, for me, just getting my feet there and being really aggressive with my feet," she said of her work with the setters. "We had a lot of reps in terms of just hitting, getting a good rhythm and taking good swings."
Carlton, who had her second triple-double of the season against Duke, does everything for UNC. She hits, she digs, and she's crucial as a setter. She saw the results when she switched from setter to opposite hitter as the rotations shifted on court.
"My teammates made it really easy for me tonight to be successful in all the different stat categories," she said. "Kendra played amazing. She really stepped into the setting role really well tonight, so she made my job as a hitter easy. And as a setter, my passers did great, my hitters did great."
On Sunday, the blockers came out to shine, stuffing a season-high 15 blocks as a team in a five-set win of the Demon Deacons.
Senior Beth Nordhorn said she focused on the grind of blocking technique in practice.
"For me personally, I'm always thinking about blocking," she said. "(I'm) really trying to work on pressing my hand over the net well."
Coach Sagula knows there is still room for improvement in his squad. His team continues to drop opening sets, and he said they need to find a way to capture some energy early and come out and play well. Plus, there's always several things, from the attack errors on Friday to the lack of defensive effort in the fourth set on Sunday, that can be fixed week to week.
But, Sagula notes, it's a lot easier to fix those things following a win than a loss. “I'd rather go into a practice working hard and pulling something out and knowing that if we can refine a few things, we'll be better, as opposed to refining a few things with a loss," Sagula said. "We want to keep an urgency upon them how hard they have to work in practice. But, when you do it with a loss, there's a sense of finding your confidence."
Two tough wins against ACC foes will build that confidence back up. But come practice on Tuesday, the grind continues. How will the Tar Heels know if the grind is successful? Sagula said they'll know if they just get a little bit better, 10 percent better, every day.
"We want to keep an urgency upon them how hard they have to work in practice," he said. "I want to go from good to great."