Photo by Gabi Palacio
Coach Joe Sagula smiled after the final point of the match. The four-set triumph over the previously undefeated LSU Tigers now in the past, Sagula could finally revel in what his North Carolina volleyball team had just done. Winning a match, against an on-the-rise program, after losing the first set and getting behind in the decisive fourth.
"It's going to be a lot better for the team to continue learning with a win than learning from the losses," Sagula said.
For two weekends, the North Carolina volleyball team tried and tried and tried and tried. Against three top ten teams in their four games and battling a slew of injuries off the court, the Tar Heels could barely win one set, let alone a match. But this weekend, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger, UNC got satisfaction.
A sweep of LIU Brooklyn on Friday set the tone. But that would only be a teaser for what UNC would accomplish on Sunday, when Leath fired off a career-high 27 kills while hitting .404 and with 12 digs to lead the Tar Heel attack. Nordhorn followed up her 10-kill performance on Friday with an even better one, smacking 15 kills and getting five blocks out of the middle.
"When you're a setter and all your hitters are on fire, my job is very easy," said Holly Carlton, who had 53 assists to go with 13 digs for her first career double-double. "They all made my job extremely easy today."
Sagula said that Leath's performance was great not only on the stat line, but for building confidence in the reigning ACC Player of the Year after everyone on the team struggled the first two weekends. "I think it's very satisfying for her, knowing she can be that go-to player," Sagula said. "She can play this type of game throughout the season now."
For her part, Leath said it wasn't just her efforts, but her teammates that made her killer stat line possible. "As the team gets better, every individual can get better as well," she said, noting her setters' work on getting the second contact right and the middle hitter's performance giving her space to work. "They all set me up to be successful."
Part of that set up was the Tar Heel service game, which kept LSU uncomfortable and out of sync most of the night by forcing the pass off the net and into poor situations for the Tiger setter. The Tar Heels' goal, Sagula said, was to make sure star LSU freshman Taylor Bannister didn't get comfortable with her swings.
"If we could serve tough enough, where they had to get the ball to Bannister, but not in a good rhythm, then we felt we had advantage," Sagula said. "But if they had a good pass and could get it to her, she was going to crush it."
UNC did a poor job with this is the first set, with four service errors and allowing Bannister to hit .714 with five kills, but hit good serves in the second, with Bannister only snagging three kills and also having an attack error as UNC tied the match back up.
"To be down 0-2 against a really good team would've been a really tough one to overcome," Sagula said. "We might look back and say that second set against LSU might be a turnaround for building the confidence of this team."
After two weekends of adversity, things seemed to click on the court when they usually hadn't this season. Fricano kicked a ball that had fallen off a block attempt up for dig that eventually resulted in a Tar Heel kill. A laser swing from Bannister that always seemed to fall for Tar Heel opponents this season was dug by 5-foot-4 freshman Maddie Grace Hough to set up a Tar Heel kill.
There's still things to fix for the Tar Heels. The ten service errors in the match, to go with 19 attack errors and four block errors, need to be cleaned up, and the team's slow start in the first set needs to be addressed. But for now, players like Carlton are satisfied with enjoying some wins for a change.
"We're really growing and maturing off the court," Carlton said. "Being able to come back after being down one and beating a great team like this was big for us."