By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — During a crazy time for college sports with a busy transfer portal, veteran Carolina volleyball coach Joe Sagula has recruited plenty of experienced talent to Chapel Hill.
That momentum has transferred from the recruiting trail to the court in the first couple of weeks of the season.
Six transfers, four in the last offseason, have injected energy, talent and leadership that has propelled the Tar Heels to a 6–0 start. That matches the 2016 team that went 29–4, won the ACC title and made an NCAA regional semifinal.
“They’ve added quite a bit of maturity throughout to who we are,” said Sagula, a 2020 N.C. Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee in his 31st UNC season. “They’re great leaders.”
Of those six, four graduate students — 6–2 outside hitter Nia Parker-Robinson from Northwestern, 6–3 right-side hitter Emily Zinger from San Francisco (in her second season at UNC), 6–1 setter Emma Reynolds from Cal Poly and 5–9 setter Meghan Neelon from Alabama — are playing their fifth seasons, thanks to the NCAA giving athletes an extra season of eligibility. All but Reynolds were captains at their previous schools.
“We’re not the only school in the country doing this,” Sagula said of bringing in players who are taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility. “I’d say that 60% of the country is benefiting from this opportunity.”
Other transfers in their second seasons are 6–4 middle hitter/right-side hitter Amanda Phegley (top photo) from Penn State and 6–2 middle blocker Kiki Khoshatefeh from UMBC.
You might expect chemistry issues this early in the season with so many new players but that’s not been the case for the Tar Heels. It’s evident watching their games that there is a bond and that the team is enjoying playing together.
“I think we’ve meshed really well,” said Phegley, who was third on the team last season with 123 kills. “This has honestly been the easiest. We’ve all just kind of jelled as a team really well, so that’s exciting to see, especially with 20 people. I think we all get along awesome. We’re all great friends.”
The only player UNC lost from last season’s team was middle blocker Aristea Tontai, who graduated and opted to use her extra season at ACC rival Miami.
Mabrey Shaffmaster, who leads a three-player freshman class, has started all six games and is one of five players to play in all 22 sets. The 6–1 outside hitter from New Castle, Ind., led her high school to three consecutive Indiana state titles.
The class includes two liberos/defensive specialists in 5–8 Carson Overbeck of Chapel Hill and 5–7 Marissa Meyerhoefer of Mooresville, an all-state first-team selection. Overbeck, a two-time all-conference pick at Carrboro High, is the daughter of former UNC soccer star and current Duke assistant coach Carla Overbeck.
Kaya Merkler, a 6–3 sophomore middle hitter from Chapel Hill who led last season’s team with 146 kills, loves what the newcomers have brought to the team.
“We jelled really well, almost immediately,” she said. “We’ve been hanging out a lot. So, I think that we have a lot of consistent personalities on the team. They are able to influence us on the court as well. So, we have stability and energy and play high performance and that is really key. I think that our strong bond really helps us.”
Merkler is third in kills this season (50) behind newcomers Shaffmaster (73) and Parker-Robinson (65).
Bringing in a lot of new players isn’t new for Sagula, who has previously brought in six or seven freshmen in an offseason. He may have to do that next season. But, for this season, bringing in that many newcomers is different when they already have so much college-level experience.
“They have added a mature vibe to the entire team,” Sagula said. “That’s created a calmness for us. That’s created the confidence in us, just in knowing that they’ve been there on different teams.
“But they have assimilated to each other. The chemistry is fantastic,” he said. “This team loves each other, and they’ve made those connections since they arrived here in June. And they’ve made such great bonds, which is helping to carry us through and helping us have a good start. We fought off some tough battles early.”
UNC has dominated in most matches, taking straight-set 3–0 home wins over Wofford and East Carolina on Saturday. They won convincingly the weekend before in University Park, Texas, with a 3–0 opening-game win over Stephen F. Austin and 3–1 victories over Pacific and host SMU.
Half of the four sets the Tar Heels have lost came Friday night in Carmichael Arena against Colorado State. They showed impressive resiliency by winning three consecutive sets after dropping the first two sets to win 3–2, paced by Shaffmaster’s 20 kills. That was UNC’s first such win since beating Florida State in 2019.
“It was awesome,” said Sagula of the win over Colorado State, which beat N.C. State on Saturday 3–1. “That was huge and that was just such a big confidence booster for us. I’m really proud of them, that was huge for that team.”
The red-hot start is welcome for a program that dealt with plenty of adversity during last season, which was played against only ACC opponents and split between the fall and spring semesters because of the pandemic.
Every league team dealt with that, but Tar Heels had other challenges that contributed to them losing their last four games to finish 10–8.
Missing time because of injuries last season were 6–2 junior outside hitter Parker Austin (two weeks), 5–11 sophomore outside hitter Aziah Buckner (a month), 5–11 sophomore setter Maylen Mitrovich (six weeks), 5–10 junior libero/defensive specialist Karenna Wurl (three weeks with a concussion) and 5–11 junior outside hitter/right-side hitter Carly Peck.
Peck injured her shoulder, missed all 10 spring games and had labrum surgery.
“We had injuries that just decimated us at some point, so we had nobody,” Sagula said. “All those people weren’t playing, and now they’re here, they’re back.”
The injuries forced Sagula to play Merkler and 6–3 junior middle blocker Skyy Howard out of position.
“We were at a disadvantage,” Sagula said. “We were lucky we had enough healthy bodies just to play.”
Sagula said that the team is about 97% vaccinated, which should increase the chances that COVID-19 doesn’t become an issue. ECU was without three key players and all of its players wore masks during their game with UNC match because of COVID issues.
UNC’s players wore masks for every game last season but they aren’t doing that this season. Because of ECU’s issues, most of the Tar Heels who were playing near the net wore masks in that game.
“I think last year, we faced a lot of adversity and I think we handled it very well for what we had,” said Merkler, who had to play outside hitter. “A lot of people weren’t in their positions and we had a lot of injuries but I feel like experiencing that allowed us to come back stronger than ever because we’re more prepared this year. And now that we have a whole lot more people, there’s less worry about having to take over from somebody else. But we’re always there if anybody needs it.”
With no injury issues and the influx of talent, Sagula said the biggest improvement he’s seen from last season is the outside hitting overall, led by Shaffmaster, Parker-Robinson, Austin and Zinger.
“We’re better at the outside hitting position, more efficient, and our middles are strong,” Sagula said. “And then you’ve got Merkler, Phegley and Skyy Howard who are going to be in the rotation. It’s going to be great.”
The Tar Heels have a talented group of spikers, including Shaffmaster, Parker-Robinson, Merkler, Zinger and Phegley. There are some different styles that can throw off opponents.
“[Phegley has] got a very quick wrist and very fast with the elbow,” Sagula said. “So, it’s very deceptive. Kaya [Merkler] is a big swinger. That’s really effective for her. She can really pound it. But Amanda [Phegley is] really quick, and that really helps her get over and pop the ball. You can’t teach that. I mean, she just has that really fast wrist. It’s what makes her a good middle. Her arm strength wouldn’t be good as an outside hitter, but she makes it really good and efficient to be a real quick hitter.”
What is the potential of this UNC team? The Tar Heels were picked seventh in the ACC preseason coaches poll with Pittsburgh (picked No. 1), which has everybody back, and No. 12-ranked Louisville (No. 2), the reigning ACC champion that went to the Sweet 16, clear favorites.
“Our goal is to finish hopefully top three, but I think it’s a fair assessment based on what everybody else returns,” Sagula said of UNC’s ACC projection, noting that Notre Dame, Florida State and No. 16-ranked Georgia Tech should also be good. “They’re going to be tough battles to play tough teams to play.”
Sagula is happy that, for the first time in three seasons, UNC plays Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville at Carmichael.
UNC has a lot to prove considering there were no Tar Heels on the preseason All-ACC team.
“I really feel appreciative of the opportunity of where we are and how we can build, but we’ve got a long road ahead,” Sagula said. “We’re going to have some tough times.”
Carolina gets a couple of good tests this weekend when they play at Michigan State (4–2) on Friday and at No. 23 Michigan (3–1) on Sunday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Duke plays the same teams but in a different order.
“They’re very good teams,” Sagula said. “We need to battle really well against them, come home, and then prepare to play in the conference. I do think we’ve shown that we can be in it with a lot of really good teams. And that’s the growth that we’ve shown and that’s what’s going to help us. I think we’ll be in it. What that means and where we stand? We have to stay healthy. We have to stay positive. We have to keep working hard. We have to avoid setbacks.”
The Tar Heels are sure to serve up plenty of entertaining nights in Carmichael this season.
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications