'She's not like other hitters'

'She's not like other hitters'

Photo by Gabi Palacio

When Beth Nordhorn gets set the ball, the play is over in a flash for the North Carolina volleyball team's opponents. Working off a quick ball from her setter, the 6-foot-7 middle hitter attacks it with ferocity, slamming down kills left, right, and down the middle.

One would think after three kills, five kills, seven kills, teams would adjust. But time and time again, Tar Heels setters get the ball to Nordhorn, and Nordhorn delivers. 

"We want to feed her," Coach Joe Sagula said. "The more we feed Beth the more she finds ways to swing."

It's why she enters conference play leading the ACC in hitting percentage. And she's a big part of why UNC has won three of its last four games, salvaging an 0-4 start to enter Friday's ACC opener against NC State at 3-5.

For her first two and half seasons in Carolina Blue, Nordhorn mostly watched the games. With All-America performers Paige Neuenfeldt and Victoria McPherson ahead of her at middle hitter her first two seasons, there wasn't much playing time to be found. She spent the beginning of her junior year primarily coming off the bench, but when starter Sydnye Fields went down with an injury, Sagula turned to Nordhorn to fill in the gap.

And fill in she did, starting the season's final 11 games and leading the ACC with a .446 hitting percentage, including a percentage of .403 in conference play. Nordhorn hit .525 in three NCAA tournament games, including an 11-kill performance in the Round of 32 against Coastal Carolina.

"We haven't given her enough of a chance (in the past)," Sagula said. "I think the more that we play her, we realize that she can score." 

This season, Nordhorn hasn't stopped, averaging over 2.6 kills a set with 73 total kills, good for the 16th individual hitting percentage (.427) in all of Division I.

Nordhorn is quick to credit her teammate for her success on the court, particularly on the offensive end.

"It's all my team," she said. "There are no kills without great digs and great sets. Everyone has been working so hard to get better, and I just really appreciate that."

Nordhorn's long wingspan makes her a dangerous offensive threat, as there are many ways she can attack a defense each time she's set the ball. This makes the opposing block hard to set up, meaning that when Nordhorn reacts quickly to a set, there's not much the other team can do.

"She's different, she’s not like other hitters," Sagula said. "She's got such a great long, rangey arm, (it's) hard to stop her."

Nordhorn notes that versatility only comes when she gets good passes from the back line, and good sets, which have come in bunches from setters Holly Carlton and Kendra Koetter.

"When we have the great passes, they’re perfect and it's hard for the blockers on the other team to get set," she said. "And then our setters giving us great balls where we can kind of see what's going on around us and sort of pick and choose where we can get to hit."

Nordhorn's attack attempts per game have gone up this season, but have stayed in the low-to-mid 20s the past three games. Sagula wants that number to be even higher as the team gets her the ball more. He also notes Nordhorn's improved blocking has been huge to her success on the court. She currently leads all Tar Heels in total blocks with 32.

Beth Nordhorn may have been able to slip through the cracks of opponent's gameplans with her quiet demeanor and efficient play. Now, the entire ACC now knows what kind of offensive weapon she's become. Will UNC keep going to her as more teams key in on her threat?

"We just do what works," Nordhorn said. "(Coming to me) has been something that's been successful in the past, so we try to go back to that."

If Nordhorn keeps being successful, she's only going to get the ball more, get more reps, and get even better. And that's a scary thing to think about for teams on the other side of the net.

@sjdoughton