Project 28: Volleyball vs. Miami
Our Project 28 series continues with a match between Carolina’s 24th-ranked volleyball team and the 16th-ranked Hurricanes of Miami.
Home of the Tar Heels
Home to the Tar Heel women’s volleyball team, Carmichael Arena is one of the most well-known landmarks on the Chapel Hill campus. “Blue Heaven” has served as the home to the volleyball team for the last two seasons since renovations were completed, and its average attendance of nearly 1,200 fans per match that has made it one of the toughest arenas in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Carolina is undefeated at home on the 2012 season with a perfect 12-0 record. The arena stands along South Road beside both Hooker Fields and Woolen Gym, and parking, especially for night games during the week and weekend matches, is available throughout campus along South Road, Stadium Drive, and inside of Cobb Deck.
Carolina’s 11-time ACC Champion volleyball squad has had a stellar 2012 campaign thus far. Carolina’s winningest head volleyball coach of all-time and three-time ACC Coach of the Year Joe Sagula is in his 21st season of coaching the Tar Heels. Sagula has led the volleyball team to five ACC first place finishes, and his team has made the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. Carolina’s 2012 squad is headlined by a star-studded returning cast, including 2011 All-ACC performers senior Emily McGee and sophomore Chaniel Nelson as well as 2011 ACC Freshman of the Year, sophomore Cameron van Noy. Carolina’s team is 21-4 and 12-3 in the ACC, sitting behind only Miami and No. 11 Florida State. Over the weekend, the Tar Heels defeated those teams and pushed their win streak to eight straight. “We’re peaking, but now we have to continue to play at a high level over a period of time,” said Sagula, “It’s the strongest I’ve seen our team to date, and we’ve got to keep it up.” With only five remaining regular season games, the Tar Heels are hoping to close out their regular season slate in the top tier of the conference in order to gain a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Friday night’s match against Miami was a redemptive contest for the Tar Heels who lost to the Hurricanes 3-1 in early October. The team came out of the gate ready to fight, as they swept Miami in straight sets 25-18, 25-16 and 25-18. “This team has made great strides, in the last three weeks in particular (since playing Miami), and tonight we looked like we were on in all aspects of the game,” said coach Sagula. Carolina flew out to early lead in each set, and the lady Tar Heels withstood Hurricane rallies after timeouts in each of the three sets to claim their 11th ACC victory of the year. “We tried to focus on every point, last time we let one point turn to two points turn to three points with a whirlwind of confusion, chaos and anxiety,” said Emily McGee, “This time we wanted to stay focused and treat each point like it was championship point intensity and comeback with intensity and fire.” Sophomore Lauren Adkins led the Tar Heel attack with 12 kills on 25 attempts, and senior Emily McGee added 10 kills and a team high 17 digs to lead the Tar Heels.
The actual game of volleyball on the college level is much more complex than the stereotypical backyard hit-the-ball-over-the-net game. A combination of formation changes, positioning and constant movement creates a blur of bodies all over the court. Each point starts with a serve and the average “possession” includes a dig to save the ball from hitting the ground, a set off of the dig, and an attempt at a kill. In general, the type of formations run by teams depends on the size and ability of the teams’ players. “We have such great balance, last year we were two or three hitter oriented, now we have six,” added Sagula. Carolina’s particular personnel featured what seemed to be two primary blockers, very tall players with significant verticals, two primary killers, who offensively attacked with smash hits, a libero, a shorter player who specializes in digging, and an additional shorter player who specializes in setting. The pace of play parallels that of tennis with the back and forth force of action, but with an added emphasis on the diving and acrobatic movements to dig shots and hit kills. The match consists of a best of 5 sets (also known as first to three), and the three set sweep of Miami on Friday featured an exceptionally executed effort by the Tar Heels to control the pace and flow of the game.
Enthusiasm and positivity are the first two words that can be used to describe a sport that may very well be the only sport where players never stop smiling. Volleyball matches are a mix of counter-attacking rallies of serves, digs, passes and kills. Every point seems to be played as if it were the last point of the match, and the constant yells and communication between players combined with the “oohs and aahs” of the crowd make for a tense collegiate athletic environment. “We’ve never an environment like this in my four years here,” added McGee, “It’s a great shout out to the Carolina student body and the great things they’ve been able to do.” The conclusion of each point won by the home team ends with players jumping up in celebration and hurrying into quick huddles as the announcer chants “POINT” and the crowd responds with a resounding “HEELS”. Volleyball is one of the few sports that excessive celebration is almost encouraged, as the benches could be seen doing synchronized cheers and the players on the court would celebrate with cheers of their own. The Carmichael Arena atmosphere was certainly electric for the match against Miami, as the Friday night game time allowed for a great turnout of fans. “Tonight they were psyched when they walked out and to see a crowd of 1600 to support them, we really love it,” said Sagula, “If we can have a crowd like that on a regular basis, imagine what we could keep doing.”
The stands at Friday’s match were filled with a mixture of families, local supporters, and the UNC pep band to spread around the individual seating area. The most surprising addition to the fan-makeup was the presence of several hundred students in the student section, nicknamed the “Block Party”, behind the team benches who stood throughout the entire game. “We have great fans, the most loyal fans we’ve ever had with the Block Party section that follows us and tweets us,” laughed McGee, “It’s great to see we get respect at a school that has a basketball and football focus,” Different sporting events all have certain traditions that are specific to their fans, and the volleyball regulars certainly had their own. Each set that the Tar Heels reached 20 points, the crowd would hold up their hands to count down each point Carolina won until the set-winning 25th point. The final set points were also some of the most entertaining, as the crowd would yell the letters “U-N-C” in progression of the Tar Heel hits, which would usually end in an explosive eruption of noise if the team clinched the set. The impact of the home court advantage has been a true inspiration to the team and their ability to remain undefeated in Carmichael Arena. “They said at the beginning of the year they wanted to go undefeated at home, and we are on pace to do it,” said Sagula, “We are going to fight a lot harder to defend their home court and we definitely draw inspiration from the fans and the students.”
Stat of the Night
Senior Emily McGee finished the three-set match with a .348 hit percentage with 10 kills on 23 attempts, which is an impressive performance. The craziest part of that statistic is that she had 0 attempts in the first set. McGee accumulated all 23 of her attempts in the final two sets after not even attempting one in the opening game. “I told her ‘be patient, your time will come’,” said Sagula, “It came in the first point of the second set, and she fired herself up and fired her team up and that’s exactly what you want from a senior leader.”
After beating both Florida State (3-1) and Miami (3-0) over the weekend, the team will head back on the road to visit Georgia Tech and Clemson on November 8th and 10th, respectively. The Tar Heels are currently sitting in third place of the Atlantic Coast Conference with five regular season games remaining before the NCAA Tournament begins.