The mantra is simple in Chapel Hill:
“ACC championship, Sweet 16.”
So it goes for a University of North Carolina volleyball team that saw its 2012 season end in a most inglorious fashion: the Tar Heels’ third consecutive second-round defeat in the NCAA Tournament.
“This year our goal is to win the ACC championship and make it to the Sweet 16 [of the NCAA Tournament],” senior outside hitter Kayla Berringer said. “Basically making it to the next level in everything we do.”
The Atlantic Coast Conference has been looking up at its two Florida schools, Florida State and Miami, the past few seasons. Florida State (28-4, 18-2), which made it to the 2011 final four, won the league last year, followed by Miami (25-6, 17-3) and UNC (26-6, 16-4). How close was UNC? It split both its matches with FSU and Miami.
History says North Carolina’s two goals are lofty. It has won five ACC titles under coach Joe Sagula, but the last was in 2008. And the only time the school made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament was in 2002, when it lost to Hawaii in the round of 16.
More recently, in 2010, a year after not even making the NCAA Tournament, UNC beat Ole Miss before losing to Cal in the second round. In 2011, the Heels opened with a victory over Cal before falling to Pepperdine.
And then last year, they won their first-round match against Cal again, this time on Iowa State’s home court. That brought about a second-round match against the home team. Meanwhile, Miami lost in the first round to Charleston, while FSU lost in the second round to Purdue.
“Going to Iowa State we had in our heads we are going to the Sweet 16,” junior opposite Chaniel Nelson recalled. “There was no turning back and we were going to do anything in our power to make it. We had the best feeling the entire trip.”
But it didn’t last.
Carolina beat Iowa State in the first set 25-22, lost the next two 25-18, 25-23, before forcing a fifth set 25-16. But down 14-13, the official called a controversial double against UNC that ended the match and the Heels’ season.
“I felt terrible for our seniors,” Berringer said. “I would never want my career to end like that.”
Certainly if Carolina had won that point and then the set was tied 14-14, there was no guarantee the Heels would have won. And it’s worth noting that Iowa State was dispatched in three by Stanford in the next round.
Nonetheless, Berringer said, “Last season did not end the way it should have.
“It’s still hard to think about.
“A lot of times when you lose in NCAAs you have closure and we got beat and we have stuff to work on for next year and we move forward. But it was tough last year because we didn’t really feel like we really lost, because it was kind of taken away from us, the reffing and little things the way the game ended up that were out of our control. It was a bitter way to end our season and for a lot of us it motivated us.”
That’s what Sagula hopes as he enters his 24th season in Chapel Hill.
“We’ve got to get past the second round,” he said. “We are motivated to get to that Sweet 16 or better. That’s our mission this year. It is a mission. If you ask anybody on our team this year, they’ll say four words: ‘ACC champs, Sweet 16.’ It’s that simple.”
Sagula had his team go through a Navy SEALS-inspired program this summer, a strenuous physical and team-building effort focused on leadership and motivation.
“We really got a lot out of it,” Nelson said. “Everyone is demanding respect out of their teammates.”
Sagula, 471-287 in 23 seasons, said he really likes his team. The Tar Heels came in just two spots out of the AVCA first top-25 poll.
“They seem like a really good connected unit right now,” Sagula said.
He sees some interesting battles for playing time on a team with five sophomores and six freshmen. The leading attacker from last year, Emily McGee (321 kills) was a senior.
“It might look like we’re kind of inexperienced, but the only thing we’re not experienced at is having seniors who have been through it and done it all,” Sagula said.
But there are two seniors who have been there, starting with Berringer, a 6’1” product of El Dorado Hills, Calif., near Sacramento. Berringer was second on the team in kills last year with 278, 2.67 per set, and third in attack percentage (.189), and Sagula said he’s not sure if she’ll be on the left or right side.
Jovana Bjelica is a 5’10” outside hitter from Belgrade, Serbia, who transferred from Florida International. Bjelica, a accounting graduate student at UNC, led FIU with 479 kills last year and has a year of eligibility left.
Leigh Andrew, a 6-footer from Fort Lauderdale, is a sophomore outside who will play all the way around.
“We need her on the court to pass,” Sagula said.
Lauren Adkins, a 6-foot junior from Winter Park, Fla., is also in the outsides mix. She started the last half of the 2012 season.
Nelson is one of three players from North Carolina on a roster that boasts players from three countries (U.S., Turkey, and Serbia) and 10 states.
“We’re really fortunate to attract people from all over,” Sagula said.
Nelson, 6’2”, from Huntersville near Charlotte, didn’t start playing volleyball until her sophomore year in high school. The left-hander is a two-time All-ACC selection but is battling a stress fracture in her leg that will keep her out until probably mid-September.
The Turk, Ece Taner, is a junior libero who drew high praise from Sagula.
The setter will be sophomore Jordyn Schnabl, but the product of Long Beach, Calif., might play in a 6-2 with freshman Abigail Curry. Curry, from Plano, Texas, “is a very experienced setter,” Sagula said.
At middle is 6’2” sophomore Paige Neuenfeldt, last year’s ACC freshman of the year and AVCA freshman of the region after leading Carolina with 135 blocks and adding 277 kills. One player who might get into the middle is 5’11” redshirt-freshman Hayley McCorkle from Winterville, N.C., who touches 10’7”. The other middle will be McCorkle’s fellow sophomore, 6’2” Victoria McPherson from Fort Lauderdale who earned a starting spot late last season and had five blocks against Iowa State.
Speaking of which …
“It wasn’t so much that we lost, but how we lost,” Nelson said. “And seeing our seniors, how their goal every year is to at least make it to the Sweet 16. It was just tough to see and everyone was really upset.
“But after, it put a little fuel in the fire for this season. Now there is no other option. We have a four-word saying for the season, and it’s ‘ACC Championship, Sweet 16.’ Those are our two biggest goals and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”