UNC Volleyball has a new look in 2018.
Two new starters at outside hitter. New starting setter. New starting opposite hitter. New starting middle. And plenty of new faces backing up the starting lineup.
That's what happens when five players transfer from the program in the offseason, including former All-ACC hitter Taylor Leath, former All-ACC freshmen Julia Scoles and Taylor Borup, and former U.S. junior national team member Holly Carlton.
But there's plenty of talent to be had on the 2018 Tar Heel squad. They have a junior national team player of their own (Destiny Cox), a former Top 50 recruit as a transfer (Hunter Atherton), a strong freshman class, and returning players who are one year stronger, faster, and most importantly, healthier from a season ago.
I'll have a full season preview column up before the team takes on No. 9 Wisconsin on Friday. For now, here's five questions from the scrimmage that stood out for me from our first look at UNC volleyball in 2018, and what I think their answer is heading into the team's first real games.
1) Will the new hitters be able to pick up the slack?
The Short Answer: Yes. The Long Answer: The hitters UNC has all have the talent to take over games, but it will take time for everything to gel and for the whole unit to reach their full potential.
The final numbers of all the newcomers both on the outside and up the middle finished great. For the blue team, junior Pacific transfer Skylar Wine led the way with 17 kills on .364 hitting, navigating the block well with a variety of well placed shots. Her outside teammate, freshman Destiny Cox, also shined with 11 kills while hitting .269, firing off a couple of impressive swings from the pipe late in the match.
Up the middle, freshman Ava Bell looked dynamic as a offensive threat, hitting .500 with 11 kills on the night. And the white team's Aristea Tontai, a sophomore transfer from Coastal Carolina, shined, snagging 11 kills while hitting .421 from both the middle and right side.
But it took each of those newcomers a little while to get going, and even when they did get in a groove, they sometimes were inconsistent. Cox was hitting .000 through the first two sets before hitting .438 the rest of the way. Bell only hit .200 in the second set, but hit .800 and 1.000 in the first and third sets respectively. Tontai hit 1.000 in second set, but -.200 in the first and .250 in the fourth.
There will be some ups and downs as the team settles in and gets used to playing together, but the team showed plenty of flashes of what they can be by season's end. If they can also turn out some, to borrow Coach Joe Sagula's description, "quiet" and consistent performances from returning hitters like redshirt sophomore Katharine Esterley (nine kills, .333 hit percentage) and senior Madison Laufenberg (six kills, .500 hit percentage), this team will be in good shape offensively.
2) Will the serve be consistent enough to keep the team in games?
The blue team struggled in the first two sets of the match, winning the first set 26-24 and losing the second 19-25, in large part due to the 10 service errors they had between the two sets.
Both Sagula and junior libero Mia Fradenberg said after the scrimmage the errors were a byproduct of an aggressive serving strategy, and that while 17 total service errors for the Blue team is too many, they can live with a few of them if it means a stronger service game. Sagula said a stat line like the White team had, with five service aces and eight service errors over four sets, is more the ideal of what the team is look for.
"We had a lot of errors out, which I think is way better than in the net," Fradenburg said. "I think we still have room to grow, but it's already taken major steps in the right direction."
This team will certainly serve tough, with a variety of both jump serves and float serves being employed. When they're on, the service game for this team can be deadly. Destiny Cox had three aces. Maddie Grace Hough's cross court serve netted her three aces. Ava Bell's jump serve is strikingly similar to one Julia Scoles employed during her ACC Freshman of the Year season in 2016. Fradenburg's float serve is tricky to follow and tough to return well.
The service game could be a strength for this team, and also a particularly good way to get some easy points against more experienced teams this season. But they'll have to be mindful of keeping their service errors in check for it to be effective.
3) How will Hunter Atherton running a 5-1 system affect the team?
I tweeted this during the game and I'll say it again here: Hunter Atherton is the most dynamic setter UNC has had in my time at Carolina.
And that's not a knock on the other setters the team has had in that time, namely Abigial Curry, Mariah Evans and Holly Carlton, who were very good in their time here, or the other two setters on the roster, Kendra Koetter and Annabelle Archer, who each looked great on Saturday. Atherton is just on a completely different level in the style she plays.
The redshirt sophomore transfer from Nebraska is very dynamic offensively, quick with her hands and easily able to attack on two and dump it over thanks to her height (5-foot-10), leaping ability, and quick reactions. She's capable of playing both front and back row, and can get up and block, having a solo block and and a block assist in the scrimmage. And she's a good defensive player, snagging four digs and serving well throughout the night.
That skill is why Sagula has changed systems from the 6-2 he's used recently to a 5-1, with Atherton as the full time setter. And why both her coach and her teammates rave about her ability.
"We haven't played a 5-1 offense in a long time," Sagula said. "It's a new dynamic for us, something different. And the fact that she can touch a lot of balls, slow it down, it's not a liability, I think is a really big thing for us."
"The biggest thing thing with Hunter is I feel really comfortable passing with her because she's so fast," Fradenburg said. "She gets her hands on everything. So it really calms me down as a passer."
Atherton was roadblocked from consistently seeing the court as a setter at Nebraska, last year's national champion, backing up All-American Kelly Hunter. Now, with the keys given to her for her own offense, look for Atherton to shine Carolina Blue this season.
4) Will the team's defensive identity shift with the new look roster?
UNC has historically been known for its block as defense. From Taylor Tracey, to Taylor Fricano, to Paige Neuenfeldt, a lot of elite blockers have patrolled the net in Carmichael Arena.
But blocking is a skill that takes time to learn, particularly in creating an effective blocking unit as a team. And while Esterley, who ranked second in the ACC in blocks per set in 2017, and Laufenberg, who's a good blocker as well, are both back from a season ago, it will take time for the blocking to get up to speed a reach the levels UNC is used to in 2018.
"Raleigh (Clark) is a freshman, Ava's a freshman. Katharine's a sophomore," Sagula said. "When we lose experienced blockers, that's a skill that takes a lot of time to develop. So they're going to do nothing but get better."
In the interim, look for UNC to lean on their floor skills more on defense. The libero/defensive specialist group is the only position group to not have any turnover this offseason, and Fradenburg, senior Casey Jacobs, junior Greer Moseman, and sophomore Maddie Grace Hough all are playing at a high level, combining for 43 digs between the two teams on Saturday.
"We push each other all the time," Fradenburg said of her position group. "I think it's helping with all the new changes if the passing can be consistent."
Sagula agreed, and highlighted Fradenburg's return to the court after a series of concussions knocked her out of most of last season as a big reason he's trusting his back row players early while the blocking gets up to speed.
"It's good to know that we're good on one aspect, that we can rely on our floor skills right now, and I think the blocking will get better," Sagula said. "I'm not worried, we're just going to need to slow balls down early."
5) Why do we see managers playing in these scrimmages?
Like last year, when assistant coaches Tyler Adams and Gavin Watt stepped onto the court and took a few swings during the Blue White scrimmage, this year also featured a male player helping give players a break and providing some top level competition for this year's team.
Spencer Buted, a manager with the team and a member of the men's club volleyball team, started at outside hitter for the White team, leading all players with 22 kills while also snagging four blocks.
Sagula said players like Buted help raise the level of the team's practices, and the team feeds off of competing with someone who can simulate speed of the swings of top players at the women's level.
"He started with us last year, and he's so great because he's so versatile," Saugla said. "He's quiet, he's unassuming, and he just plays hard."
It was a fun peak at what practices around Chapel Hill might be like for this squad, and a chance for players for the men's club team, where Sagula serves as their faculty sponsor, to show what they can do on the court.