Photos by Turner Walston
The North Carolina volleyball team is still sorting things out. After injuries have knocked out four members of the sophomore class — Julia Scoles, Taylor Borup, Mariah Evans and Mia Fradenburg — coach Joe Sagula's expectations of who was going to play in big spots have changed.
"We're trying to figure out the lineup all the time," he said.
One area of concern has been who is going to swing for the team. Taylor Leath has the kill numbers to compete for ACC Player of the Year for the second year in a row, averaging 3.85 kills a set, and Beth Nordhorn has been one of the most efficient hitters in the country, leading the ACC in hit percentage at .431 on 181 total attacks.
But beyond that, there's been no consistent third option on the court for the team to go to. The weekend split with N.C. State and Louisville, however, may have given a clue to who will step up as ACC play continues.
Here are three players to watch for as UNC visits Clemson and Georgia Tech this weekend.
1) Sydnye Fields
Fields is listed as a middle hitter on the team roster, but the team's injury woes have led Sagula to move her to the right side for the past few matches. She's gotten better there with time, increasing her kill numbers and total attacks each match.
Fields said that, at times, the timing of swinging on the right has been a challenge to pick up.
"In the middle it's a much quicker ball, and on the right you have a lot of time," she said. "You have to get your feet there and there's a lot of different elements that go into it."
Sagula was impressed with Fields' continued improvement on the right side. After only getting one kill in her first match there against Loyola Marymount, Fields had nine kills against Louisville just four matches later, while continuing to excel in the blocking game (six block assists).
"Sydnye is becoming better on the right side, much more comfortable, had some big kills for us and blocks," Sagula said after the Louisville game. "Maybe we found a combination that works for us."
2) Sehrena Hull
Hull, similarly to Fields, isn't listed as a hitter on the UNC roster. Standing at 5-foot-7, she's listed as a defensive specialist. But after playing outside hitter in high school and getting some reps there in practice and the Blue/White Scrimmage to start the season, Sagula had her playing six-rotations from the third set on against N.C. State.
"We needed to have Sehrena in there for the ball control," Sagula said. "We hadn't practiced it much at all."
Hull provided a boost to the Tar Heel defense and serve receive against the Wolfpack, but also tallied four kills with no errors to hit .250 on the night. The performance was even more impressive against Louisville, when she got nine kills while hitting .286 and tallying two block assists.
Hull said a couple of early kills helped calm her nerves on the court, giving her confidence against N.C. State.
"I was definitely nervous at first, but my team helped me gain the confidence that I needed to swing," Hull said. "Then it became fun for me out there."
Hull's versatility on the court and excellence in serving and defense should lead to her continuing to get more opportunities to swing as conference play continues.
3) Taylor Fricano
The redshirt senior has had an up-and-down year statistically, playing all over the court as the team tries to find a consistent lineup. She's played left-side, right-side and middle hitter throughout the 2017 season.
Her block numbers remain consistent wherever she plays, but kills — and hitting errors, in particular — have varied wildly from game to game. She's had games like the one against LIU Brooklyn, where she had 11 kills in three sets with a hitting percentage of .526. But she's also had games like those against Loyola Marymount, where she finished with zero kills and a negative hitting percentage.
No one is harder on those stat lines than Fricano herself.
"That's not acceptable for this team. You can't have a redshirt senior not hit what she's supposed to," Fricano said after the loss to N.C. State, when she hit .062 with five kills and four hitting errors. "It's really on our veterans, and it's definitely on me."
Fricano has the block numbers (1.09 per set) to stick somewhere on the court if she can attack well. If she can return to 2016 levels of offensive prowess — averaging 1.47 kills a set while hitting .327 — that'd go a long way to help the team find options beyond Leath and Nordhorn.