It's safe to say the 2017 season hasn't gone the way the North Carolina Volleyball team expected it to.
Coming off a 29-4, ACC championship season in 2016 with a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels expected to keep the momentum rolling with another great year. The preseason No. 11 team in the country, UNC returned ACC Player of the Year Taylor Leath and ACC Freshman of the Year Julia Scoles, All-ACC Second Team performer Taylor Fricano, and All-ACC Freshman team member Taylor Borup. U.S. Junior National Team member Holly Carlton was scheduled to make her Tar Heel debut off a redshirt the year before. Coach Joe Sagula set the goal for the year at making the Final Four. Everything looked to be clicking.
And then, the season started. UNC was swept in three of their first four games against power conference opponents at the start of the season, and has fluctuated between hot and cold streaks all year long as they dive deeper into conference play. The Tar Heels currently sit at 10-10, with a 7-5 record in the ACC after being swept three straight games on the road to Pittsburgh, Florida State and Miami.
Why hasn't UNC met the high expectations that were set by fans, the media, and themselves at the start of the year? There's no one factor that explains the whole season, but here's a few reasons why UNC has struggled down the stretch.
1) The injury bug hit the team like a freight train
The UNC football team isn't the only Tar Heel team dealing with this issue this fall. At different points this season, Scoles, Borup, Mariah Evans, Mia Fradenburg, and Keimaya Hunter have all missed games on the court for the Tar Heels due to various injuries, and according to Sagula, nearly everyone on the roster has been fighting myriad injuries and ailments that have held them out of practice.
Scoles and Evans haven't played since August due to concussions, and both are scheduled to sit out the rest of the season and file medical hardship waivers. Borup's absence through most of September and into October with a hurt leg left an already thin outside hitter core even thinner. And Fradenburg, the team's libero at the start of the season, missing time with a concussion has hurt the depth at defensive specialist.
Scoles and Evans absence in their true sophomore year has in particular been tough on the Tar Heels. Scoles' 305 kills, 259 digs, 54 blocks and 32 service aces had a season ago are hard to replace, and her presence on the court would take some pressure off of players like Leath and Beth Nordhorn that have been the primary offensive options for the Tar Heels.
Evans would have been a stabilizing force as setter, as she was the only returning player with college game experience at the position in a Tar Heel uniform, snagging 503 assists as a freshman. While setters Holly Carlton and Kendra Koetter have both improved by leaps and bounds from the start of this season, both struggled to connect with Tar Heels' hitters early in the schedule. Evans could have helped keep the early blowouts to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida competitive and been a point of continuity in the Tar Heel attack.
This is by far the biggest reason things haven't gone the Tar Heels way. If your top players aren't healthy, it'll be hard to meet expectations. While these injuries can be chalked up to a string of awful luck, they have highlighted two other issues that have affected UNC's performance on the court, and would've been issues regardless of the injury bug.
2) The team is very young, and that has come with growing pains
The 2017 Tar Heel squad only has two seniors, Taylor Fricano and Beth Nordhorn, or four fourth-year players if you count redshirt-juniors Taylor Leath and Keimaya Hunter. Four freshmen, true freshmen Maddie Grace Hough and Sehrena Hull and redshirts Holly Carlton and Katharine Esterley, have played in key spots at different points this season. Borup, Fradenburg, Sydnye Fields and Greer Moseman are only sophomores.
With all that youth playing in key spots, the team has struggled to come out strong in the first set, putting them behind a set early in matches. There's been a lot of learning on the fly, and players that just focused on themselves last season learning how to lead a whole team as upperclassmen.
In the preseason, it's easy to expect every player to match their production from a season ago, if not exceed it. After all, they've had a whole off season to get better in practice and stronger in the weight room. And often, players do breakout season to season.
But it's never that simple. In interviews with Coach Sagula, he's pointed out that while it looks like players are playing the same role on the court they did a season ago, additional team responsibilities and pressure can affect how players play year to year as they adjust to each year's team.
Injuries have only increased the pressure on some of those leaders, like Fricano and Leath, and might explain why the team as a whole has taken a hit on hitting percentages this year.
3) The losses from 2016 were bigger deals than we thought
The expectations we set as outsiders may have been a bit too much. Fans and the team knew that the losses of Shelia Doyle, Abigail Curry, Tatiana Durr, Taylor Treacy and Hayley McCorkle to graduation after the 2016 season would leave some holes for folks to fill in the lineup. McCorkle, Curry, and Doyle all were starters in the team's Sweet 16 loss to UCLA, and Durr and Treacy provided key swings at outside hitter. Curry and Treacy were even All-ACC performers that season, with Treacy on the first team and Curry on the second.
With those five players gone, the Tar Heels lacked depth, particularly at outsider hitter, which allowed for the the injury bug to really cause havoc on the Tar Heels' lineups. Additionally, all five of those players produced in key spots for UNC, leaving over 450 kills, 1,000 assists, and 900 digs behind. That's a lot of production that needed to be picked up by other players.
It was easy to see that UNC had its two biggest stars, Leath and Scoles, back from a year ago, and look at how players like Taylor Borup, Mia Fradenburg, Mariah Evans and Holly Carlton had developed, and think the team was going to be just as good, if not better than last year. Injuries derailed that vision, sure, and the team should set lofty goals. But perhaps those of us in the media and on the fan side of things should've taken a step back and realized just how much was missing from the 2016 team, and considered that it would take some time for the rest of the roster to reach the levels of play those players left behind.