photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications
The 2016 season for UNC volleyball was a success in every measurable facet: An ACC title, 29 wins, a trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. The ACC Coach of the Year, ACC Player of the Year and ACC Freshman of the Year all called Chapel Hill home.
But if you ask head coach Joe Sagula? 2017 promises to be even better.
“We’re hoping that there’s no drop off,” he said in an exclusive interview with Argyle Report.
In Sagula’s mind, anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance would be disappointing. The Tar Heels have never made it past the Elite Eight, which they reached for the first time in 2014. Their goal this year?
“Final Four,” he said.
When you bring back your conference’s player of the year in Taylor Leath and freshman of the year in Julia Scoles, you can afford to aim that high.
Leath, a redshirt junior, and Scoles, a sophomore, will serve as anchors for a UNC team that Sagula says might be the most talented he’s ever had. He can’t remember two top award winners coming back the following season -- for his team or any he’s coached against.
Leath and Scoles play very similar styles. Both are listed as outside hitters, but that’s a bit misleading. They’re both “six-rotation” players, meaning they can play both the front and back lines and essentially never have to leave the court at any point during the match for being out of position.
That sort of role is rare because it requires a very diverse skill set. It requires adeptness in attack, with lethal swings and kills on the outside. A player also has to be fast and nimble enough to get digs when they’re on the back line as well, which can be difficult with the height needed to be a good hitter. But Leath (6'3) and Scoles (6'1) excel on both fronts.
Leath led the team in kills in 2016, with Scoles trailing shortly behind, and both averaged over three kills per set, combining for 39.8 percent of the team’s total. Defensively, each trailed only senior libero Sheila Doyle in digs, both averaging over two and half digs per set. They also led non-liberos and setters in assists in 2016, good for fourth and fifth on the team, and were each able to average over half a block a set in the process.
Sagula said their similar play styles led to an internal competition to make each other better, which started in the spring of 2016 when Scoles got to campus. The pair’s return to Chapel Hill this year is a big reason why Sagula expects so much success out of his 2017 squad.
“I try not to get too comfortable to think about that,” Sagula said. “They’re going to carry this team, without question, but we hope they won’t have to carry every point.”
There’s plenty of talent surrounding Leath and Scoles to lighten their load, but there are concerns, too. The Tar Heels lack the depth the team had a season ago –particularly at outside hitter behind Leath, Scoles and sophomore Taylor Borup– and the team needs to replace Doyle at libero.
Tar Heel fans need not be too concerned, though. Sagula says if Leath and Scoles stay healthy and continue to compete with one another, there’s no limit to where the Tar Heels can go.
“They both thrive on that,” he said. “They enjoy the competition.”
And if Leath and Scoles continue to elevate each other’s game in their internal competition, Carolina’s competitors won’t enjoy facing the force that emerges.