Photo by Turner Walston
After an ACC title and Sweet 16 appearance last season, the North Carolina volleyball team returns a ton of talent at every position in 2017. With reigning ACC Player of the Year Taylor Leath and ACC Freshman of the Year Julia Scoles at outside hitter, senior standouts Taylor Fricano and Beth Nordhorn at middle hitter, and U.S. junior national team player Holly Carlton at setter, UNC is loaded up for what could be one of their best seasons ever.
The Blue vs. White scrimmage on Saturday was my first chance to see what this year’s Tar Heels could do. Here are five things I took note of during the game:
1) Can the team stay healthy?
The tensest moment of the night came late in the fourth set, when Leath fainted during a timeout. She had to be rolled off the court in a wheelchair, which certainly gave everyone a scare in Carmichael Arena. Fortunately for UNC, she appeared to be fine after the game, talking with teammates and onlookers during the post-game shuffle.
Leath’s fainting only highlighted a potential bigger problem for the Tar Heels, as quite a few players are dealing with injuries at the moment. Carlton only played two out of four sets as she recovers from an ankle injury, and Scoles didn't play while recovering from a concussion she sustained in training camp. To reach their full potential, the Tar Heels will have to keep everyone healthy and manage their playing time accordingly down the stretch.
2) Can anyone match their height?
Early in the scrimmage, when the White team was comprised only of first-team players, UNC employed a lineup where the shortest player on the court was a tie between the 6-foot-3 Leath and Sydnye Fields. That kind of height is very difficult to counter, though Carlton noted that the lack of smaller, scrappier players can cause balls to drop that otherwise wouldn’t have.
From my perspective, I didn’t see any huge holes with that lineup. Leath and Taylor Borup at outside hitter were nimble enough to dig almost everything, and the sheer amount of attacking options that lineup provides gave the Blue team fits when it was deployed. Sagula says this year’s team is one of his tallest ever, which allows him to use lineups like that at times. With eight players standing at least 6-foot-3, and an additional three over six feet tall, these towering lineups are something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
3) How were the newcomers?
North Carolina had six players on the court Saturday who haven't seen any court time in a UNC uniform in an official game. Each of them showed promise in different ways during the scrimmage.
Carlton lived up to her national team status, posting 22 assists in only two sets of work at setter, also nabbing a pair of kills and blocks. The 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman is expected to have a big impact for the Tar Heels as a six-rotation player at setter, but she's also expected to get some time at opposite hitter. Fellow redshirt freshman Katharine Esterley had five blocks on the night to go with four kills, while her middle hitter counterpart, freshman Raleigh Clark, had six blocks. Junior Kendra Koetter, a transfer setter from Georgia Southern, also did well, getting 28 assists in the scrimmage.
The most impressive new players for me, however, were true freshmen Maddie Grace Hough and Sehrena Hull. Both played their roles well: Hough started at libero for the Blue team and had a pair of service aces, and she was very involved on the court in most everything her team was doing. Hull got five kills on the night, and she took several swings from the outside, showing off impressive hops for a player who's only 5-foot-7. With her attacking prowess, Hull could be a versatile weapon off the bench in the back row for Sagula.
4) Is middle hitter quietly the best position?
UNC’s outside hitters get a lot of headlines and awards, and for good reason. They’re all excellent, and since Leath, Scoles and Taylor Borup are all six-rotation players, they tend to spend more time on the court than players at other positions. But for my money, it’s the Tar Heels’ middle hitters, from top to bottom, who should have opponents most worried.
Led by seniors Fricano and Nordhorn, the middle hitters showed adeptness on defense — helping lead the way to a combined 23 blocks between the two squads — and attack, where the middle hitters secured 40 kills as a unit with a high hitting percentage (.618 for Nordhorn, .500 for Fields). The connection Carlton had at setter with the middles was particularly impressive, and it should pay dividends for the Tar Heels as the season progresses.
5) Coaches can play, too?
A fun part of the scrimmage was the participation of assistant coaches Gavin Watt and Tyler Adams in the game. Both coaches got the chance to get some swings in on the court to help give players on the Blue team a breather and challenge the White team with hard-hit shots. Adams ended up with 11 kills on the night, while Watt snagged four of his own along with a pair of blocks.
The two former professional players were clearly having a good time on the court, both yelling in exhalation after successful attacks for their side. It was a fun little window into how the two coaches might be used in practice for the Tar Heels and made the scrimmage a different experience for the crowd than a typical game in Carmichael.