It's hard to set expectations for UNC Volleyball in 2018.
On one hand, the Tar Heel program has only missed the NCAA Tournament once this decade, bringing in a recruiting class with multiple Top 50 players and returning their entire defensive specialist core from a season ago.
On the other, it's a program that went 14-14 last year thanks to a bevy of injuries that left the team with 10 active players at the end of the season. On top of that, the team lost five players to transfer, three to graduation, and another two leaving the roster for either medical or personal reasons in the off season.
Of the 17 players head coach Joe Sagula has on UNC's roster this season, 11 of them are either freshmen, sophomores, or entering their first year with the program.
"You'll talk to coaches, and some we'll say 'I'll never want to say rebuild, I'm going to say reload!' We're not reloading, we're rebuilding." Sagula said. "And there's nothing wrong with that, it is what it is. We're going to be building something now for the next five years ahead of us. It's just different."
Predicted to finish sixth in the conference in the preseason ACC coaches' poll, UNC Volleyball will have a new look on the court.
Gone are the towering swings of Taylor Leath, Julia Scoles, and Taylor Borup on the outside. Enter the power and finesse of freshman Destiny Cox and junior Pacific transfer Skylar Wine.
No more will Beth Nordhorn put up ungodly hitting percentages up the middle while Taylor Fricano slides for another block. Freshman phenom Ava Bell and redshirt sophomore Katharine Esterley will take over the reigns.
6-foot-7 setter Holly Carlton will no longer drive the Tar Heel offense. Nebraska transfer Hunter Atherton now holds the keys, with senior Kendra Koetter and freshman Annabelle Archer the capable backups.
The only areas of consistency are the back row, where junior Mia Fradenburg will once again don the Libero jersey and senior Casey Jacobs and junior Greer Moseman will help ball handle and serve receive, and at opposite, where senior Madison Laufenberg will get a chance to break out after three injury shortened seasons at Carolina.
Even the hitters bench has a new look, with sophomore Coastal Carolina transfer Aristea Tontai and redshirt freshman Raleigh Clark subbing in up the middle and freshman Hadden Largarde along the outside, with freshman Lauren Harrison taking a redshirt to heal an off-season ACL tear.
Throw in an entirely new coaching staff, save Sagula, in Mike Schall, Susan Clements and Jeremy Young, thanks to departure of Eve Rackham, Gavin Watt and Tyler Adams to Tennessee, and you wouldn't be surprised if it's hard for fans to recognize everyone around the office in Carmichael Arena.
"The game is the game. Serve, pass, set, hit," Sagula said. "(But) everything is new. Many of the things we do, it's a first time."
The Tar Heels will be thrown into the fire early, with Top 10 matchups this weekend against Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Minnesota, and three games against Power Conference opponents Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma two weeks later in Boulder, Colo. There's winnable games in between, including home matches against UNCG, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Michigan State, and the neutral site matches out west are toss ups. But it will take time for a new look lineup to gel, and that's even before the coaching staff figures out how the team will adjust to the grind of the season.
"I think when we go to the first weekend, we're going to be pretty pumped up. We could get our butts handed to us, very likely, or we could come out and just be loose and play," Sagula said. "At a certain point in the season when the crunch time comes, and you have the veterans who know what it's like through a season, and we don't have that (leadership), that will be a challenge for us. That will be something you can't see on the court, but we're gonna have to learn.
"I don't know what Hunter Atherton, who's a good player, is like in the middle of the season. I don't know what Skylar Wine is going to be like. I don't how these freshmen, who did a great job in summer school in their classes, are going to be, when midterms come around in October, what their mindset is going to be on the volleyball court. All we can do is hope that the Casey, and Kendra (Koetter), and Madison, and Mia, that they can continue to say 'it's ok, you're going to be ok,' and they'll help them through it."
Once ACC play hits, this team will be in its stride, and the talent is there for them to make some noise and make a run back to the NCAA Tournament if the results break the right way. Everyone, save Harrison, is healthy to start the season, a luxury this team didn't have a season ago. They'll have to stay healthy to exceed the expectations set for them this year.
"We're going to have to manage this team differently than you would a veteran team," Sagula said. "And that's ok."
The Tar Heels may be rebuilding. No one can deny that. And no one really knows how this team will look on the court three months from now.
But it's hard not to get excited about a 3-1 win over Coastal Carolina in an August scrimmage, or the performance of the team's key players in the Blue v. White Game. It's a young team, with lots of potential, but with that youth also comes the likelihood to have some hiccups along the way.
But for fans of the program, both young and old, it'll be a process. One that could yield fruit very early, or one that will see the same up and down play seen a season ago.
Temper your expectations and enjoy the ride. It'll be a fun season either way.
OH: Cox, Wine
MB: Bell, Esterley