UNC is one of a few college volleyball teams with every player wearing masks for matches

By R.L. Bynum

If you watch a college volleyball match this fall, you’ll see something you are unlikely to see in any other sport — entire teams wearing masks during competition.

North Carolina is one of those teams. 

Since preseason practice started Aug. 1, Coach Joe Sagula’s team has worn masks for every practice. All of the measures seem to have been effective since no Tar Heels have tested positive for COVID-19.

As odd as it was to see every player wearing a surgical mask during a match, it didn’t seem to have any effect on their play as the Tar Heels split the first two matches of the season at Virginia Tech, winning 3–1 Thursday and losing 3–2 Friday.

Making it a bit more odd-looking was the contrast between the teams since every Hokies player decided not to wear a mask. Players on their bench wore masks.

Wanting his players to stay safe is one reason his players wear masks, but setting set an example for their fans was also important.

Joe Sagula

“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model.“

“Absolutely. We think about that, said Sagula, in his 31st season as UNC’s coach. “Our team has said that if we can wear a mask in practice for two hours, in a hard-fought practice, then there’s no reason why someone else can’t put on a mask when they walk into a store. 

“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model,” Sagula said. “If that’s what people get from that, great.”

Wearing masks at the start of practice was the decision of the coaching staff but Sagula wasn’t sure if the team could make it work. They decided to use disposable surgical masks after first trying out gaiters. Sagula said the gaiters didn’t work that well for volleyball.

“They said it was a little bit of a struggle early, but they were okay with it and the continuation of it came from the team,” said Sagula, whose team gets COVID-19 tests three times a week when there is a game. “They felt better about creating better safety and creating a statement of how important it is to wear a mask every day. So, once we did that we just said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do that.’ ”

During a match, the ACC only requires coaches, team support personnel, game personnel and referees to wear masks.

“It hasn’t hindered anyone. I can tell you that,” Sagula said.

The Tar Heels (1–1, 1–1 in the ACC) aren’t the only team in the league wearing masks. When Notre Dame played Louisville on Thursday and Friday, both teams wore masks. Virginia also is wearing masks for matches.

Notre Dame coach Mike Johnson told Sagula that the Irish players were adamant about wearing masks.

“They wanted to wear masks, and they wanted the opponents to wear masks,” Sagula said. “They were going to ask. I’ve kindly asked as well but it’s not required.” 

Already this season, a Clemson-Wake Forest match and an Appalachian State-Georgia Southern match have been postponed because of COVID-19 concerns.

UNC buys the surgical masks in packs of 100. Players wear a fresh mask every day and they change masks after particularly long rallies. Players changed masks during the first two matches.

“The biggest thing is the sweat,” Sagula said. “Also, I think it’s probably better for their face that they’re changing masks every now and then rather than having that sweat stay on their face. After long rallies [in practice], we take water breaks, we have them socially distance, but they can just take in some fresh air. They just lift the mask a little bit away from their face, they’re not taking it off. So we’re very respectful of that. We will tell them if they need time getting a breathing timeout, just let us know.”

There are other safety measures during this ACC volleyball season. Instead of postgame handshakes, there are postgame waves. Instead of the teams switching benches and sides as they normally do in volleyball between sets, the teams use the same benches and play on the same side of the net for the entire match. 

There are designated towels for each side to use to wipe the floor. A trainer with gloves handles the towels.

The pandemic meant that preseason practice that normally lasts 14 to 17 days lasted seven or eight weeks. Sagula, who last summer was inducted into the North Carolina Volleyball Hall of Fame, saw that as a huge positive.

“This has been a real blessing in some ways to have this time to develop and to learn how to deal with the unique things in practice — wiping down volleyballs, wearing masks and taking precautions,” Sagula said. “They’re using hand sanitizer probably 10 times, maybe more, in a practice just to keep the hands clean from the volleyballs. We take precautions —  no high fives, no slap fives and maybe a fist bump or elbow bumps. They want to protect each other. I think that’s a really big commitment.”

The extended preseason was particularly helpful for UNC’s freshmen. Four first-year Tar Heels played well at Blacksburg, led by Kaya Merkler (on left in top photo) and Aziah Buckner (in middle in top photo).

The pandemic has created a college volleyball season like no other. UNC will play eight ACC games in the fall then play about 10 more, plus 6 to 8 conference games, starting in January. The 2021 portion of the schedule hasn’t been set yet. 

The fall schedule features four sets of back-to-back matches at the same site, concluding with two home matches against Duke on Oct. 23 and Oct. 25. The league was divided into three pods for geographic purposes with Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and N.C. State in the Tar Heels’ pod. 

The NCAA championships will be held in April and every volleyball program will play games in 2021. The ACC, SEC, Big 12 and the Atlantic Sun are the only leagues playing games in the fall, when the entire season usually plays out.

That will mean that after the last Duke game, the team will be off for two months before the season resumes in January. Although the eight fall games count in the ACC standings, Sagula looks at them as a bit of a preseason.

“Hopefully, we can position ourselves and play well this fall,” Sagula said. “We’ll come back in January, and the bodies could be rested. I think what it could do is show some more higher-level volleyball in the spring again.”

Carolina’s next game is its home opener on Oct. 9 against Virginia. The teams also play at Carmichael Arena on Oct. 11. 

And the Tar Heels will be wearing masks.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics

Brown says BLM statement not political but what’s right

By R.L. Bynum

With plenty of high expectations surrounding No. 18 North Carolina, Mack Brown could have easily been like many other football coaches who barely recognize anything outside of their football bubble. 

Before he made a video supporting Black Lives Matter, even his players told him that it was going to upset some people. In a turbulent 2020, with nearly everything viewed through a political prism, he knew what some of the reactions might be.

That didn’t matter to him after he heard from his players and fellow coaches about the racism they all had endured.

“We have to be very careful that anything outside of football doesn’t disrupt our team,” Brown said. “But I felt very strongly about this cause. Some people think it’s political. I haven’t got a political bone in my body. It’s what’s right. I’m building the program on being fair and being consistent and doing what’s right. That’s all I’m asking. I’m asking everybody that feels differently to stop, take a deep breath and listen and try to learn from it and see if you would feel comfortable if that was your son.”

Brown knew that he had no idea how it felt to be Black and no clue what Black people deal with daily. So he had conversations with his Black assistant coaches and Black players to find out about that and figure out the proper message he should deliver publicly.

“These are guys that work together and they’re very comfortable with each other, and it was not the most comfortable conversation,” said Brown, who discussed it for 90 minutes with his staff. “A lot of things were brought up that were sensitive and hard. And I just felt like I needed to ask all of them to help me because I haven’t been the victim of racism. Help me represent them and help me say what they would like to say because of the voice that I have.”

Brown says it was painful to hear that some were afraid to get in their car and some parents are afraid for their sons to get into cars. Or some were afraid to go for runs.

“That’s why we need to make sure that we listen and learn,” Brown said. “And I’ve learned so much from these guys, these players, about what they put up with in their lives. And our bubble, again, is safe. And it’s a cool environment where we laugh and cut up with each other and we don’t see race. 

“And I’ve thought what an awful time in 2020 that we’re still talking about how somebody looks. And we’re better than that and we’re smarter than that,” he said. “And I felt like it was time for me to say that for our team. After the fact, I’m so glad that it represented our team and staff, and that they had so much input into it. And it was my words that wanted to say what they felt, and I feel the same way, obviously. I wouldn’t have said it unless I felt the same way.”

Brown also got some criticism when he said that, from a football perspective, it was better for his program during a pandemic with many students leaving campus. Some said his comments were against education, which he said wasn’t the case at all.

Brown said that, at UNC, they’ve tried to pattern themselves after the NBA bubble as much as possible. Fewer people on campus makes that easier. When there were in-person classes, the word he got from players is that going to class was safe. It was activity outside of class that was problematic. Anything that is of higher risk, such as inside gatherings, is to be avoided..

“What we’ve seen is that football has not caused the virus,” Brown said. “Because we haven’t had any positives out of football. It’s what you do outside of the bubble that affects you.”

Brown has preached wearing masks, staying away from people who don’t wear them and constantly hand-washing.

“We basically just told the players if you want to play, then go by the guidelines,” Brown said. “If you don’t care, go to your parties and have your social life but you’re not going to play. And that’s very simple and it’s not going to be the norm. It’s not going to be the same. I don’t go out of my house much. I come to the office around you guys, I go back and Sally and I are staying in a bubble as well so we’re all trying to make this thing work. And as of now, it is working.”

UNC opens against Syracuse at noon on Sept. 12 at Kenan Stadium without fans in the stands.