Photo by Gabi Palacio
Coach Joe Sagula was brief.
After watching his North Carolina Volleyball team blow a two set to one lead to fall 3-2 to the Loyola Marymount on Friday, the usually animated Sagula took his time processing the collapse.
"I thought we played two and half sets pretty well," Sagula said. "And to win, to be successful, you've got to play hard for all three."
UNC dropped the first set to the Lions, but bounced back to win the second and third sets with efficient hitting and good defensive work. The fourth set, however, flipped momentum on its head. UNC struggled to return the serve of LMU's Kekai Whitford, as she went on an 11-point service run in the to give LMU a 20-10 lead in the fourth set that UNC eventually lost 25-14. She later went on a four point run in the decisive fifth set, which ended up being the difference as UNC lost it 15-11.
Sagula said that the fourth set was a matter of getting stuck in a bad rotation, but subbing people in and out didn't help. "It seemed like a different team stepped in their bodies," he said.
Team captain Taylor Leath said that all of LMU, not just Whitford, made UNC's job difficult returning the ball. "We just weren't returning them in a way that we could stay in system," she said.
The results were better on Saturday, when UNC pulled out a five-set win over Coastal Carolina with a top-notch fifth set. But that day too, UNC lost to first set and won the second and third to go up 2-1, only to allow their opponent to get back in the match with a fourth set win.
"We've got some work to do," Sagula said after the win, noting he doesn't think the team's fourth set woes come from any physical problem. "I think maybe we need more time with our sports psychologist, or we need time to help build confidence. But there's no reason to play as well as we did in the second and third set to show up in the fourth set like that."
The serve-receive game played a big role in both fourth set collapses. UNC was aced twice a piece in the fourth set against LMU and Coastal. Even when they weren't aced, however, the Tar Heels struggled to pass the ball off the serve and set up an attack, resulting in poor set hitting percentages both nights (-.037 and .121).
The difference between the nights, of course, was the fifth sets, where UNC cruised against Coastal, jumping out to an 8-3 lead and never looking back to win the set 15-8 and clinch the match. The Tar Heels were powered by five kills from Taylor Fricano, and hit .625 as a team in the final set.
"I'm really happy for them that this will hopefully build some confidence, knowing 'Ok, we overcame an obstacle,'" Sagula said. "You probably were thinking like I was, 'who knows after the 4th set, was it going to be a repeat of last night?'"
Redshirt freshman Katharine Esterley, who had four kills and six blocks on the night, said the team had that thought in the back of their minds, but used it as motivation. "Our team captain, Taylor Leath, said 'Remember last night. Remember how that felt. Remember what we need to do,'" she said.
Outside of the fourth sets, there's plenty of signs of improvement for UNC from the winless first two weekends of the year. Setter/hitter Holly Carlton earned her first career triple-double on Saturday after just missing it by one kill the night before. Sagula said she's only going to get better as she plays more matches in her redshirt freshman season. New faces, such as Serena Hull at defensive specialist, and old faces in new places, like Sydnye Fields on the right side, are improving with each match as well.
Sagula knows there's much work left to be done in practice before ACC play begins at NC State on September 22. He thinks his team will be ready.
"Our goal is still to be successful and go out and make a run at the ACC Championship. I still think we're going to be ok," he said. "We have four days to practice this week to get ready for NC State. They'll be a tough match to play at their place. They're out for blue blood."