By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s volleyball team has impressively met every challenge during its nonconference schedule, sweeping Davidson 3–0 on Saturday to take an 11–0 record into ACC play.
It’s the first time that the Tar Heels have finished their nonconference schedule undefeated since the 2013 team won its first 15 games on its way to a 27–5 season. Seven of this season’s wins have come in straight sets.
“I knew we had the ingredients to be successful,” UNC coach Joe Sagula said. “We could easily be 9-2; we could be 7-4, and I think we’d be at the same point right now with things we have to work on to get better.”
San Francisco transfer Emily Zinger, who was one of three Tar Heels with double-digit kills, said the torrid start isn’t surprising.
“I think we expected to do it, honestly,” Zinger said. “We had that cocky confidence that we talked about as a team that kind of took us as far. So, it was more of an expectation and a goal that we wanted to reach that we knew was reachable.”
Clearly, this team is good. They’ll get an early measure of exactly how good Friday at 6 p.m. when No. 4-ranked Pittsburgh (10–0 and the ACC favorite) comes to Carmichael Arena.
Sagula’s focus is more on the ACC season as a whole and not just his team’s biggest test of the season.
“Pitt’s a big match, but it’s not the most important match,” he said. “We’ve got 18 ACC matches, and obviously we have a lot of respect for how well Pitt’s playing. But it’s not going to determine anything other than just a start. That won’t define us. What will define us as what we do every weekend, and all those road trips and going back-to-back. So, I think we’re going to keep it all in perspective and just come out and prepare as hard as we can give it our best shot and see how we’re doing.”
Northwestern transfer Nia Parker-Robinson said that the team is looking forward to the challenge of facing Pittsburgh.
“I’m excited to kick off ACC with Pitt,” she said. “It’ll be a really good game. They’re a great team. We’re also a great team, so that’s gonna be one we’re focusing on this week and just really getting after it in the gym and we’ll be prepared.”
In Saturday’s 25–16, 25–19, 25–23 win, the Wildcats (4–5) were pesky against UNC in the third set, leading 21–19 before dropping their fourth consecutive game. Blocks by freshman sensation Mabry Shaffmaster and Kayla Merkler sparked a 6–4 set-ending run.
“That third set is the greatest motivation a coach could ask for,” Sagula said. “To say, ‘you better come to work on Monday and get ready to get back to it and get back to hard work.”
Parker-Robinson said that the Tar Heels just pushed hard to finish off Davidson in the third set.
“That’s a really scrappy team, so just relentless pursuit is kind of our mindset going after that,” Robinson said. “If you got a good swing, they were gonna dig it up and you had to know that you had to be on all your cylinders to keep getting those good swings and finding the open areas of the court. So, as a team, I think we did a really good job of calling shots for us which is really great.”
Parker-Robinson powered a kill on the first point of the match and the Tar Heels were rolling from there. Parker-Robinson (13), Shaffmaster (13) and Zinger (10) each tallied double-digit kills.
“Their play inspires everyone around them,” Sagula said. “When Nia gets a kill, she’s excited. But she makes other people want to do the same. They help each other. And what they do every day in practice, they challenge each other.”
That was the eighth double-digit effort of the season and fifth in a row for Parker-Robinson, the fourth for Shaffmaster and the first for Zinger.
“Nia is a go-to player who’s physical,” Sagula said. “We know when it comes to crunch time, she’s going to get the ball. You need a go-to player to get the ball, and you need a go-to player on your team, somebody that you can say that you got a high level of trust that you know that the odds are you’re going to score.”
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications