Monday, September 29, 2003

Raising the Net

Joe Sagula knew he could not let his players know what everyone else knew. The UNC volleyball team was unranked and had five wins and three losses. Its opponent, Nebraska, was ranked No. 4 in the country and won the national title the season before. On paper his team exemplified the word “underdog,” but as UNC’s head coach, Sagula told them just the opposite before the match at Carmichael Auditorium on Sept. 13, 1996.

“We’re going to dominate Nebraska,” he said before delivering a game plan in the locker room. The players might not have dominated, but they did win. Not only did the win raise expectations on the team, but it was a sign of things to come.

“I always point to that year where we had turned the corner,” Sagula said. “It just seemed that things started to come together. We didn’t have the success, but I knew the attitude had changed. The type of players and the competitiveness had been raised.”

The “success” came two years later in 1998. The Tar Heels won their first NCAA Tournament match since it became a varsity sport in 1971, and started their current string of five consecutive tournament appearances. Last year, UNC won two matches in the tournament for the first time ever and ranked No.12 in the final national coaches’ poll – the highest it ever had by the end of a season. The players and Sagula, who improved the program in a short period of time, said they were happy with the accomplishments, but not completely satisfied.

Before he was named UNC head coach in 1990, Sagula compiled a winning record during his nine seasons at the University of Pennsylvania. He knew the Tar Heels had “an outstanding reputation nationally” for athletics and academics. He also knew an attractive campus and climate would help recruiting. For the young coach, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I came here to be able to do what we’re doing now,” said Sagula, sitting in his office in Carmichael Auditorium. “To build a program that can be nationally competitive, where we can recruit great athletes at a great academic school and hopefully compete for a national championship.”

Competing for a national championship may be unrealistic this season, especially after losing four starters to graduation, including ACC Player of the Year Laura Greene. Yet, the expectations have never been higher.

“Last year’s team had a lot of experience,” said Aletha Green, one of two seniors this year. “This team has 10 times as much talent.”

While that talent has propelled UNC to a 7-2 record against several renown teams, a lack of playing experience at a high level is a concern. Green and junior Molly Pyles, the middle and outside hitters, along with defensive specialist Caroline deRoeck provide the foundation of game experience and leadership for a team ranked No. 20 nationally in the preseason coaches’ poll.

Although experience is lacking, a positive attitude and team unity is not. Sophomore McKenzie Byrd, who has played many games this year as a setter, said she considers all of her teammates her best and closest friends at the University.

“I think a big strength of our team is that it’s not a job, it’s fun,” she said. “We love to practice. We love to lift weights. We just love to play.”

Sagula agreed. He said the players have never complained, which he said is rare for athletes today. This attitude alone reflects just how far the program has come since he took the helm in 1990.

Despite UNC’s success in the 1980s, which included five ACC titles, Sagula had his work cut out for him. The ACC was not a strong conference for one thing. So while the Tar Heels were a regional power, they never won an NCAA Tournament match.

Sagula also had unfortunate timing. He took over a team that had graduated a majority of its starters, and hadn’t recruited anyone.

“They had one player coming in that next year who was a walk-on,” he said. “And that was it. So we kind of started from scratch. It was a whole rebuilding process at that point.”

With a personality that inspired his players, like the 1996 game against Nebraska, Sagula maintained competitive teams during his early years at UNC. By the year of the Nebraska win, the competitiveness in the conference had been raised with the addition of Wake Forest and Florida State – two teams that joined the ACC after Sagula arrived.

Team success also helped UNC recruit better players from around the country. Now, with five players from Illinois on this year’s roster and three from California, the program is established and respected as a national power.

“When I came in, I didn’t really know how a collegiate program was run,” Pyles said. “But now that I’m older I appreciate so many things that (Sagula) does.”

As a freshman Pyles hated looking exactly like her teammates. She hated the fact Sagula made sure everyone had their knee pads up and shirts tucked in. Those things that bothered her, she is now thankful for. Pushing players out of their comfort level, demanding more, and building team unity are three important components for a winning team that Sagula stresses on a daily basis. To achieve those components, UNC plays games every practice. Sagula tries to raise the competitive level by keeping score of the games.

Fundamental skills, like blocking and digging on defense, are emphasized in practice. Interacting and seeing players’ development is something Sagula likes most about his job. So he doesn’t just work on players’ weaknesses, he harps on them. And if it takes several months, he said, to learn a certain skill it’s that much more rewarding.

Even though Georgia Tech and Duke were ranked ahead of UNC in the preseason coaches’ poll, the players and staff still believe they have the chance to win the ACC title. And going as far or further than last year’s team is also a goal.

“I have the most faith in this team,” Green said. “It may not be the same road we took to get there as last year, but we can definitely reach the same goals.”



This story first appeared in the Blue & White Magazine in October 2003.