Could weekend sweeps cost UNC volleyball in December?

Could weekend sweeps cost UNC volleyball in December?

Photo by Turner Walston

One only has to look at the box score of UNC's season opener against No. 4 Minnesota to realize things didn't go well. 

A 3-0 sweep for the Golden Gophers. Five Tar Heel blocks to Minnesota's 11. The Golden Gophers out-digging UNC, 51-37. Twenty-six Tar Heel attack errors. An abysmal .009 hit percentage. Three Tar Heels hitting below zero in attack. 

"We've got a number of things to get better at," coach Joe Sagula said. 

It was a weekend that couldn't have gone much worse for the Tar Heels. A second sweep on Saturday by Wisconsin left the team searching for answers, wondering if the talent the team has shown can come together and win matches against top foes. It's also the sort of weekend that could be brought up when the NCAA tournament selection process starts.

Could these two sweeps against top level teams come back to cost UNC a host site down the line?

Sagula doesn't think so. He said it was too early in the season to make those judgments, noting that UNC was underdogs in both games. Losing when you're not favored in a matchup tends to mitigate the effect. 

"If we're losing to RPI teams (ranked) 200 and 210, it's costing us," Sagula said. "Not losing to the teams ranked No. 4 and No. 7 in the country." 

Sagula is more concerned with correcting the myriad problems exposed in his team this weekend — getting his team back to swinging well and not making attack errors. 

"Some of our veterans, including myself, just weren't managing our swings well," redshirt junior Taylor Leath said. "(We weren't) making smart decisions about when are good sets to go all the way and what were good sets to put (the ball) in smart places."

Sagula agreed, saying the team got away from their attack strategy of "Taking the 0." 

"'Take the 0' means you either get a kill, you get a zero when you just put the ball in play or you get an error," he said. "Take the 0 — take the zero as opposed to take the error."

This attack emphasis means the priority should be to keep the ball in play, taking the "0", as opposed to going for a difficult kill that has a high probability of resulting in an error. UNC averaged nearly nine attack errors per set against Minnesota when it got away from this strategy — which is as many total errors, including block and service, that Sagula says he thinks his team can make and still win a set. 

"We're not the blocking team we thought we were," Sagula said. "This team has relied on our block to set up our defense and our defense was so good. Now our block is inconsistent, which is making our defense inconsistent."

The Badgers had 20 more digs than the Tar Heels on Saturday, to go with only four UNC blocks. While UNC cut down on the attack errors, that lack of defense hurt them throughout the game.

"The game moved a little fast for us and we weren't exactly catching up with it," Leath said. "(Wisconsin) took some good swings, but we didn't dig the diggable balls."

It's been a difficult preseason for UNC, with multiple players out of practice for long periods of time due to injury. Sophomore setter Mariah Evans suffered a concussion during training camp and is questionable for this weekend. Julia Scoles, the 2016 ACC Freshman of the Year, likely won't play as she recovers from her own concussion.

The result is some depth issues and a lack of chemistry on the court that was exposed on the court in Minnesota. But the Tar Heels don't have time to lick their wounds, with Auburn and Florida staring them down this coming weekend in Puerto Rico. Florida knocked off Texas and Nebraska — two Final Four teams from a season ago — just last weekend, and Auburn will be hungry to prove themselves against a top ACC school. An 0-4 start is on the table, which would total as many losses as UNC had all of last season.

But Sagula said his team can't think about that. For now, it's all about getting better. 

"We know as coaches, we've been through this, it's not the end," he said. "Keep a good perspective, keep learning, keep improving, and we'll be where we want to be."

@sjdoughton