By Turner Walston
On the volleyball court, you can sense it building. Get a clean pass and a good set, and with the ball in the air, you can almost feel a big kill coming. As one player bumps the ball from the back line to the front, the machine is in motion. Players trace the arc of the ball with their eyes and position themselves to execute the kill. It may be libero Sheila Doyle or Mariah Evans on the back line with the initial touch.
The set often comes from near the net, moving laterally in front as two players launch themselves into the air. Maybe it's Abigail Curry finding a teammate. And then the kill itself, as a swinging hitter slams the ball across the net and toward the floor. Hayley McCorkle, Taylor Treacy, Julia Scoles, Taylor Fricano or Beth Nordhorn up front, or Taylor Leath from the back.
That building suspense toward the kill? The Tar Heel fans in attendance at Carmichael Arena can sense it, too. With a set point on the line, they chant with each touch on the Carolina side of the net. 'U-N-C,' a letter per touch. Ideally, the 'C' is the kill that wins the set. Sometimes, the chant happens three or four times before a deciding hit. Such was the case Saturday night in the Tar Heels' second round NCAA Tournament match against Coastal Carolina.
The visiting Chanticleers came in to Carmichael and immediately took control of the match, leading the first set nearly wire to wire before holding on to win, 25-23. “I think as a team we decided to lay everything out on the court, play as hard as we can, and make sure that if this was our last game that we wouldn’t have any regrets," said Coastal's Leah Hardeman. "I think that we put everything out on the court."
It was the first time since the Tar Heels hosted Duke that they'd dropped the first set of a match. "We faced a really strong team in the first set, and we just had to stay patient and let our game come around," Tar Heel head coach Joe Sagula said.
The Chanticleers carried their first-set momentum into the second, jumping out to a 6-1 lead and leaving the Tar Heel fans searching for answers. Sagula, who doesn't often use his timeouts, spent one then.
"It looked like it was going to carry over, and I needed to do something to settle [us] down," the 27th-year head coach said. "I told them we needed to focus on our passing. Their server did a good job and took them on a run, and just to get back in our lanes and concentrate on that more. Once we settled down there, our setting took off. Julia (Scoles) got back there and took us on a run, and that changed it around. I didn’t want the game to get out of hand. I usually don’t call a lot of timeouts early, so that was uncharacteristic of me, but I think it was important tonight to stay focused.”
With Scoles serving, the Tar Heels won the game's next three points. Coastal maintained a one or two-point lead until McCorkle earned a kill to tie the score at 14. Carolina finally took the lead on a Leath kill to make it 18-17. The home team would not relinquish that lead and took the set on a blast from freshman hitter Taylor Borup.
After the intermission, the Tar Heels asserted themselves as the team that had earned the tournament's seventh overall seed, building and maintaining leads to take the next two sets and the match. Coastal Carolina was a game opponent; Hardeman had 25 kills on the night, and each point was competitive. They made the Tar Heels earn it.
With the Tar Heels up 24-17 in the fourth set, the Chants wouldn't give in. A long rally meant that five times, the Carolina fans chanted 'U-N-C,' before Coastal's Natasa Savovic hit the ball into the net, sealing the set for the Heels. Each time the ball was on their side of the net, the patient Tar Heels set up each other for an effective attack.
"It all starts with the pass," McCorkle, who was brilliant at the net. "It really does. Once you get a good pass, you as a hitter can feel the rhythm, and the setter can feel you as you’re taking your approach. It really does allow us to build momentum going through the sets, once you know we have each other’s backs. It’s a wheel that’s turning, and I think that’s how we create the momentum to go into the next sets."
The Tar Heels kept the ball rolling in the fourth and final set, taking a 25-16 win and a Sweet Sixteen bid. Carolina now advances to the Sweet Sixteen for just the third time in school history, but the second in three years. The Tar Heels have now won ten straight matches and 21 of their last 22. They now travel to Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Should both teams win on Friday, the Tar Heels and Golden Gophers would meet on Saturday in the Elite Eight. The two teams faced off three months ago, with Minnesota taking a 3-1 win. That was a long time ago, and Sagula feels that his team is continuing to build to playing their best volleyball.
"I think one of our goals was to play well, and to build momentum from this match going into the next match. We mentioned playing clean: reducing errors, getting a nice pass on first contact. Once we do that, we’re going to be a great team, because we have so many weapons. If we’re all on and passing well, we’re going to be a tough opponent. I feel excited, and think this team has gained confidence knowing we got challenged tonight. This was a good lesson for us and something we’ll take forward.”