They stood there together. Before the match, Beth Nordhorn and Taylor Fricano, the two Tar Heel volleyball seniors —honored alongside four student managers— held their framed photographs and roses, embraced their families and one another. They smiled for photos, eager to get their match with Clemson underway, but also reveling in the moment. 

Nordhorn and Fricano had taken different paths to reach that moment. Nordhorn had come from Winter Park, Florida, a talented freshman whose offense was good enough for her to see the floor, but whose defense needed work. With two of the best middles in Carolina history in Victoria McPherson and Paige Neuenfeldt ahead of her, Nordhorn often stood on the sidelines as a young player. But she got to work against McPherson and Neuenfeldt in practice, went to work herself in the off-season. She saw action in six matches as a freshman, then nine as a sophomore. Then, she broke out. In 2016, Nordhorn was outstanding. She led the ACC in hitting and was among the league leaders in blocks. She’d gone about the work of improvement, of finding her place up front.

Beth Nordhorn, left, and Taylor Fricano, with libero Casey Jacobs in the foreground.

Beth Nordhorn, left, and Taylor Fricano, with libero Casey Jacobs in the foreground.

“She didn’t develop an attitude of ‘woe is me,’” Tar Heel head coach Joe Sagula said. “She stayed with it, stayed patient and became a team player.”

"I had Beth on two or three recruiting visits, and I knew she was going to be a perfect fit at Carolina," said Neuenfeldt, the former Tar Heel now playing professionally in France. "She embodies every quality a student-athlete at Carolina should have. She's got a great heart and a smart head and I am so proud to see our little middle blossom into this senior powerhouse!"

Fricano, meanwhile, spent two years at Wisconsin. A native of Palatine, Illinois, - just outside Chicago - she’d gone to a great program in Madison. After redshirting in 2013, she played in seven matches the following season. She may have been just two hours from home, but Madison didn’t feel like home. She then visited Chapel Hill, with no intention of committing. “I thought it was too far, and that was a big factor for me,” Fricano said. “Then when I came, the team was so full of camaraderie and friendlieness and just a warm, loving environment and it made it really hard to say no. Obviously, I didn’t say no, because it was that hard.”

"She came on her recruiting visit during our spring tournament, which was also my birthday," Neuenfeldt said. "She hung out with us the whole night, and I knew that she'd be a perfect fit for the team."

Fricano had played right side at Wisconsin and planned to do the same in Chapel Hill, demurring when Sagula suggested she might try playing middle. But with Taylor Treacy and Hayley McCorkle ahead of her on the right side, it was tough to find playing time. Then, an injury to setter JoJo Schnabl forced a change in rotation, and Fricano was left out of the mix.

Prior to the next season, Fricano told Sagula that she thought she could play middle after all. "And she became an all-conference middle," Sagula said. Fricano tied a 16 year-old school record with 142 block assists and ranked among the nation's best with 1.34 blocks per set. 

Nordhorn and Fricano are products of the system that Sagula's recruiting and coaching have perpetuated: get good players in, have the veterans help them along, then as those young players mature, the cycle continues. The two Tar Heel seniors got better as they competed against such players as McPherson and Neuenfeldt, Treacy and McCorkle. And the next generation of Tar Heels, —the Katherine Esterleys and Taylor Borups playing alongside Fricano and Nordhorn now— will be better for having competing against them, and in turn will lend a hand up to the Tar Heels that follow them.

After the Senior Day celebration, the Tar Heels took to the court in Carmichael Arena for the final time in 2017. With the Clemson Tigers across the net, it was a match of runs. The action went back and forth, but the Tar Heels knew to take what the Tigers gave them and trust the process. After close wins in the first two sets, the third was a rout.

Fittingly, the two seniors figured into the match's conclusion. Nordhorn got a dig on a ball that made it set point, then Fricano closed out the match with her seventh kill of the night. "It's funny," Fricano said. "You visualize a lot of different things. I visualized a block, initially, between me and Beth. But the play before, Beth got an insane dig, and I was like, 'OK, that was her piece; I feel like mine's coming up. And I got a little nervous, but to finish it, and I heard [the PA announcer] say 'The senior Taylor Fricano!' and I was just like, 'Wow, that's the last time I'll hear my name,' and it was pretty much like a storybook. You don't always get the storybook ending, and it was really cool to get that tonight."

Nordhorn said that she had to put emotions aside to play volleyball, to stay within the team during the match. Afterward, however, she allowed herself to get a bit emotional when discussing her Tar Heel career. "I just think so much about how blessed I am to be here," she said, "just this program and all the people around me."

From their coaches and teammates to the crowd in attendance in Carmichael on Saturday, Fricano and Nordhorn felt the love. Though they came to Carolina from different places, each found home in Chapel Hill.

"Everybody here is in full support of us," Fricano said. "That's what home is. Home is where you get support and you get love, and that's what you get here."

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Photos by Corrie Haswell Walston