UNC volleyball team in transition playing well, splits weekend matches

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — In a season of transition for Carolina’s volleyball team, with the Tar Heels replacing veterans with young players, it’s never going to be easy, particularly against a challenging early schedule.

Coach Joe Sagula saw those growing pains play out this weekend at Carmichael Arena during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Tar Heels rolled to a 3–0 Friday victory over Michigan State before battling well but losing by the same score Saturday against Michigan as four freshmen adjust to the college game.

Carolina (5–3) lost two games by two points against the Wolverines, losing 25–20, 26–24 and 25–23 before a nice, loud and energetic crowd of 2,156.

“We’ll learn we have to just raise our level together,” Sagula said. “And with a young team, you’ve got to be patient. You got to realize you’ve got to find your moments to encourage the success and how to learn from the failures.”

Outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster, last season’s ACC Freshman of the Year, junior middle hitter Kayla Merkler and graduate outside hitter Charley Niego, each All-ACC selections a year ago, lead a team that lost six of its best players from last season’s 21–9 team that earned its first NCAA tournament berth since 2016.

Carolina has won four of its last five matches after dropping two of three in a season-opening trip to Colorado.

“I think that first trip was very hard for us,” Segula said. “I’m actually pleased with the progress. Would I like to win? Absolutely. But sometimes you have to be careful. But I think for this young team, learning a lesson now will be important.”

Middle hitter Skyy Howard, one of the senior leaders, said the team has been resilient through some tough early matches.

“I think we’ve done really well as a team staying together, even after the wins and the losses that we’ve had, just remembering that we do have a really young team and like a lot of new freshmen and we’re just working hard every day in practice to build that cohesiveness,” Howard said.

Gone are outside hitter Nia Robinson, last season’s kills leader, as well as setters Annabelle Archer and Meghan Neelon and hitters Amanda Phegley, Emily Zinger and Ryan Shannon.

Freshmen are being counted on to help fill those voids in setters Anita Babic and Ella Bostic, middle hitter Liv Mogridge and libero Maddy May.

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“As a young group of freshmen, we’re really trying to learn and grow through the process,” Babic said. “And the seniors have been doing a great job helping us with that.”

Sagula said that it’s just a process for his young players.

“They’re just learning to get into a rhythm, and they’re going to impact a lot,” Segula said. “When they’re on, it’s great. But a big part of it is that they’re in the transition here.”

Carolina battled throughout the 25–20, 26–24, 25–23 defeat against the Wolverines (6–2), staving off four match points in the final game before falling, but never led after the first game. Michigan was coming off a 3–1 loss Friday at Duke.

“We had some great swings, and the ball just kept coming up, and I think we lost our patience at times and got a little frustrated, which is going to happen,” Segula said. “Their defense was tenacious; they were great. I watched him play last night against Duke, and that was a different kind of team than played last night.”

NOTES: Carolina plays its next three matches in Richmond, facing Old Dominion and VCU on Friday and Maryland-Baltimore County on Saturday. … Merkler led UNC against Michigan with 10 kills, with May getting 19 digs. … UNC leads the series with Michigan 5–3 and had won the previous three meetings.

Michigan 3, UNC 0

DateMonth/dayTime/scoreOpponent
(current ranking)
LocationTV/
record
August
26FridayL, 3–1Colorado StateFort Collins, Colo.0–1
27SaturdayW, 3–0UC Santa BarbaraGreeley, Colo.1–1
27SaturdayL, 0–3Northern ColoradoGreeley, Colo.1–2
September
2FridayW, 3–0South CarolinaHome2–2
3SaturdayW, 3–2ArizonaHome3–2
6TuesdayW, 3–1CharlotteCharlotte4–2
9FridayW, 3–0Michigan StateHome5–2
10SaturdayL, 3–0MichiganHome5–3
16FridayW, 3–1Old DominionRichmond, Va.6–3
16FridayW, 3–0VCURichmond, Va.7–3
17SaturdayW, 3–0UMBCRichmond, Va.8–3
23FridayL, 3–1No. 10 Pittsburgh8–38–3,
0–1 ACC
25SundayW, 3–2VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.9–3,
1–1 ACC
30FridayL, 3–1MiamiHome9–4,
1–2 ACC
October
2Sunday1 p.m.Florida StateHomeACCNX
7Friday7 p.m.Wake ForestWinston-Salem
9Sunday1 P.M.Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.
14Friday6 p.m.Boston CollegeHomeACCNX
16Sunday3 p.m.SyracuseHome
21Friday7 p.m.N.C. StateRaleigh
23Sunday1:00 p.m.DukeDurham
28Friday6 p.m.No. 11 Georgia TechHomeACCNX
30Sunday1 p.m.ClemsonHomeACCNX
November
4Friday6 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.
6Sunday1 p.m.No. 2 LouisvilleLouisvilleACCNX
13Sunday1 p.m.No. 2 LouisvilleHomeACCNX
18Friday6:30 p.m.Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.ACCNX
23Wednesday2 p.m.DukeHomeACCNX
26Saturday1 p.m.VirginiaHomeACCNX

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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