CAROLINA: The House That Sagula Built
Volleyball program looks to become top 25 mainstay
By Amy Hoots
It was 2009, the year his dog died.
Joe Sagula was seeking his 600th career win. The Carolina volleyball team was 15-15 heading into the last match of the year. The Heels would take on a dismal NC State Wolfpack team that had lost 19 straight conference games. Administrators and friends traveled to Raleigh to support Sagula and celebrate the inevitable milestone.
Instead, the Wolfpack chalked up their first conference win and Coach Sagula, still grieving the loss of his beloved canine, had his record suspended at 599 until the next season. It had been a rough year for Sagula. "I couldn't wait for January 1," he recalled.
He had a feeling number 700 wouldn't be easy either. As he's learned in his 33 years of coaching, nothing good ever is. This time around, Sagula had decided, "I don't want to know about it, I don't want to deal with it, I want to fous on the match."
Sagula reached the milestone on November 24 on the road against Maryland. He describes it as a crazy game, and not the prettiest win for No. 14 Carolina. They were down 14-13 in the final set, one point away from postponing Sagula's milestone and more importantly, weakening their position in the ACC. While Sagula ignored the record, the players knew the stakes and in a gutsy performance, rallied the team to victory. And the best part of win 700? It's over, and Sagula can bring the focus back to the place he feels it belongs-the team.
Between wins 600 and 700, tremendous change took place for both Sagula and the Carolina volleyball program. "With all due respect to everybody who's been part of where we've been and where we've gotten, in the last four years we've grown tremendously," Sagula said. "We've become a lot more athletic. We're a better all-around program with the types of players we have coming in. The level of recruits we're bringing in to the program is even higher. "
Carolina volleyball has arrived on the national scene, and Sagula believes this time it will be sticking around for a while. "We have been [in the top 25] in previous years," he says, "but it's been a year in and a year off. I think we're more consistently playing as a top 20 program."
Sagula is seeking the consistency that his program has lacked in the past. That the team has been ranked in the top 25 this year and has reached as high as tenth has not been as much of a source of pride as the fact that they've managed to stay there. With a talented young group, it seems likely that this year is no fluke.
Assistant head coach Eve Rackham describes the head coach as a hard worker and someone who puts in the time. How has he changed? "I think he's a lot softer than he was a few years ago," she said, remembering her time as a player at Carolina. "And he used to work out with us more. He used to be leading the pack on the runs. That doesn't happen anymore," she laughed.
One thing that hasn't changed is his dedication to his players. "He's changed with the game, but as a person, he's the same," Rackham said, "He genuinely cares so much about the kids who he coaches. He cares about what they do in school, he cares about them off the court, and he cares about them when they graduate. There's a real connection to him which makes people play harder for him."
Senior captain Kaitlyn Anderson said, "Not only is he a great volleyball coach on the court, but he's a great coach to us off the court. He goes beyond his job description to make sure we are taken care of."
That may be one reason why the Carolina volleyball program has been on the positive side of the trend of volleyball players transferring schools. With decisions being made much earlier in the volleyball recruiting process, some student-athletes land on a team or at a school that is not a good fit.
Carolina has had the benefit of having various student-athletes transfer in, but not transfer out. Sagula claims the reasons these players play and stay is the excellence of the university and that students are happy in Chapel Hill. But attending a great university is not enough to keep a student-athlete satisfied. She needs to understand the dynamics of the team and decide to be a part of a program which she can thrive.
Along with truly caring about student-athletes' all-around happiness and success, Sagula has an honest approach when recruiting. "When people make a decision, we're very up front as far as what their role will be. For the early committed kids, we are pretty good about making sure they really want to be here before we pull the trigger."
Another constant throughout the past few years has been Sagula's staff. Rackham has been with the Heels five years and assistant coach Tyler Adams has been with Sagula four. "That goes a long way to understanding and organizing your program and knowing the level of how we're going to recruit, how we're going to train, and knowing each other," Sagula said.
It was no surprise for Sagula to hear his team's name announced during the NCAA selection show on Sunday night, and the opponent was equally unsurprising. In 2010, the Tar Heels lost to California in the NCAA second round. In 2011 and 2012, Carolina beat Cal in the opening round of the tournament. This year, the Heels will have the chance to make it three in a row as they take on Cal on Friday evening in Madison, Wisconsin. If they defeat the Golden Bears, they will take on the winner of Milwaukee and Wisconsin on Saturday.
Carolina been selected to the tournament the past three years, but hasn't made it beyond the second round. This will be Sagula's 11th NCAA appearance as the head coach of the Tar Heels, but 2002 was the only time in the program's history that they made it as far as the semifinals.
"We haven't made it over the hump yet," said Sagula. "Our team is hungry."