Photo by Olivia Henley
The North Carolina volleyball team hasn't gotten off the start it wanted. Winless entering this weekend, this is the Tar Heels' worst start since the program's 0-12 effort in its inaugural 1971 season.
There are a lot of reasons for the slow start. The Tar Heels tested themselves early with three games against top-10 teams, and a rotating cast of injured players has hurt their depth and kept some of their best players sidelined. But one only needs to look at the box scores of the first four games to see where the teams' problems lie.
For UNC to turn it around, it'll have to improve in all facets of the game. Here are three areas to monitor when the Tar Heels take on LIU Brooklyn and LSU in this weekend's Carolina Classic at Carmichael Arena.
UNC's main problems have been on the defensive end, where opponents have been able to get down far too many kills in each set. Opponents have hit 0.269 against the Tar Heels this season, as UNC ranks 306th out of 329 Division-I teams. This is in part due to the high caliber of teams the Tar Heels faced over their opening stretch — Wisconsin leads the country in hitting percentage at the moment at 0.393 — but more can be done to get opponents of their comfort zone and into more errors and less kills.
Digs play a big role in keeping that hitting percentage low. In UNC's best game of the season of the season so far vs. Auburn, the Tar Heels led the digs category with 73 to the Tigers' 68. That helped the Tar Heels win the third set of that match, the only set they've won thus far on the year. In the three other matches, UNC lost the dig battle by double digits and were swept.
Libero Mia Fradenberg will be the one to watch in this category. She had 24 digs against Auburn, and she's averaging 4.46 digs a set. Outside hitters Taylor Leath and Taylor Borup, as well as setter and opposite hitter Holly Carlton, will be ones to watch as well. If UNC is digging the ball early in the match, it'll have a good chance to cause opponents problems.
The Tar Heel block will also be important in getting their opponents' hit percentage down. It's something UNC normally does well, but coach Joe Sagula said he was disappointed with how the team blocked in the opening weekend. But a look at the stats shows drastic improvement from weekend one to weekend two. UNC averaged 1.67 blocks per set against No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 4 Minnesota, but the Tar Heels averaged 2.86 blocks per set against Auburn and No. 3 Florida.
Senior middle hitters Beth Nordhorn and Taylor Fricano lead the way for Tar Heels in this category, each averaging a block a set. When they get going at the net, it forces opponents into swings that are easier to account for defensively.
UNC currently averages 2.31 blocks a set as a team. If that number can get closer to their production against their SEC foes, the results that Tar Heel fans want should follow.
3. Attack Errors
Another stat where the team has shown improvement in their four games is attack errors, but there wasn't anywhere to go but up after the opener. UNC has 26 attack errors against Minnesota in the season opener, an average of nearly nine attack errors a set, resulting in an abysmal 0.009 team hitting percentage. Since then, the team has improved its attacking, averaging only 6.46 attack errors a set.
Combined with service and block errors, though, that's still over nine total errors per set, which Sagula says is the most the Tar Heels can afford to have in a set if they want to win it. The key to getting these numbers down, Sagula says, is having the team manage their swings, which means prioritizing keeping the ball in play rather than taking difficult swings going for a kill.
The high volume attackers are the most vulnerable to racking up attack errors and hitting in the negative. Leath, Borup and Madison Laufenberg on the outside have all hit in the negative — had more attack errors than kills — at least once this season. Their production, or lack thereof, will be key in whether UNC secures their first win this weekend.