By Turner Walston
After a spirited practice Sunday night, the Carolina volleyball team gathered in their players lounge. Pizza, salads and lemonade in hand, they sat down and waited for 9 p.m. and the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Selection Show on ESPNU. Having clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference four days prior, the Tar Heels were assured of an automatic tournament bid. Confident they'd receive a top eight seed, the players were eager to learn who they'd host on the first weekend of the postseason.
It was quarter to nine, but the Tar Heels were nervous about the men's basketball game on the television, hopeful that Stanford would maintain a modest lead over Seton Hall so that the selection show would begin on time. The Cardinal held on, and the Tar Heels were appreciative.
"Thanks for taking care of business, Stanford," one said.
Just before the fateful hour struck, Tar Heel head coach Joe Sagula stood before the room. He thanked the staff and friends of the program in attendance. "Hopefully, we get an outstanding seed," he said. "We have no idea. A lot of people have predictions, but I know hopefully we will be here next weekend, Friday and Saturday, and a lot of stuff is going to happen after this I'm sure, but all the announcements, tickets and stuff like that will go up on the web starting immediately afterwards..." And then the program began, Sagula's players playfully shushing and ushering him out from in front of the big screen.
All eyes were on ESPNU, with Sam Gore and Nell Fortner revealing the 64 teams that would play for an NCAA championship. One of them noted that four of the five power conferences had not crowned a champion prior to the weekend. The fifth? "That's us," several Tar Heels whispered. The top four seeds had been announced at 8:30 on Twitter, but the broadcast revealed Nebraska as the top overall seed, followed by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas. Big XII champion Kansas was fifth, and then Stanford was announced as the six seed. There were murmurs of consternation in the Tar Heel players' lounge. The Cardinal were 21-7 in the regular season and finished third in the Pac-12. They'd gone 2-4 in a midseason stretch. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were 27-3 and had won 19 of their final 20 matches. "Let's remember this," one player said.
The snub was forgotten with the next announcement. The Tar Heels were the seventh seed. They'd host the first two rounds of the tournament, and should Minnesota get upset, the Tar Heels would be at home the following weekend. Fortner said Carolina was her spoiler team. No team would be hungrier in the postseason, the former Texas standout proclaimed.
It would be another half-hour or so before the Tar Heels knew who they'd play. The coaching staff watched from an anteroom just off the lounge. The head coach bounced back and forth between his players and his assistants, keeping an eye on the television. "I'll tell you who we're going to play," he said to a GoHeels.com featured writer. "I don't know, but I think we're going to play High Point. The other match will be James Madison and . . . Coastal Carolina."
If he'd been tipped off, he faked it well, because that's how it played out. Sagula proved himself a net prophet. The Dukes and Chanticleers will play in the first match of the regional on Friday, with the Tar Heels and Panthers to follow. "I didn't know! I just know the teams," Sagula said to the writer when it was made official. "He thinks I knew!"
With the seven seed matching the highest in program history, Sagula said the tournament committee was recognizing the Tar Heels' outstanding season. "This legitimizes what we've done all season long," he said. "How we won this conference, to play like champions and to move forward and to say that we can be recognized as a team that's going to be a contender in the national picture and hopefully get as far as we can."
With the bracket announced, Sagula returned to the front of the room. "This is the exciting part. As we've been saying, the journey continues. We've been talking about it since August," he said. "Now we are where want to be, OK? Ready to accomplish the mission. We've got a great opportunity to play at home this weekend. We somewhat predicted what could happen, and it's fallen the way we want. But, what's our concern right now?"
"High Point," the players answered in unison.
"High Point," Sagula repeated. "That's all. We're all preparing just to play High Point."
Just as they did throughout the regular season, the Tar Heels will take the postseason one point, one set, one match at a time. They methodically captured their second ACC title in three years and have a chance to exceed the 2014 team's Elite Eight appearance. High Point awaits the Tar Heels, and perhaps there are more high points to come.