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.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

As a senior at North Carolina, I interviewed my landlord’s father, John Brooks, a 97-year-old who lived in the same housing complex as me. I wrote this story in the fall of 2003. When I returned from spring break in March 2004, I received a call from my landlord. John had died in his sleep at age 98. At the church ceremony the priest was filling in and did not know John so he read my story and handed it out to John’s family and friends. Before John died, he had given my landlord an envelope and said, open it when I die. Inside the envelope was $200 with a message to have drinks on him. After the church ceremony, John’s family and friends went out for drinks.

The first time I met John Brooks, he was hunched over his living room bureau drawer. “I’m just looking at some old photos,” he said. He had to adjust his hearing aids before I introduced myself. After all, for a man who lives alone in the Town House Apartments in Chapel Hill, there’s no reason for him to have his hearing aids adjusted. Sometimes he doesn’t even wear them. Those family photos are more important. That’s what he’s got left. And boy does he love them. He looks at those photos every day. But he doesn’t just look. He remembers. Whether it’s inside his two-bedroom apartment or sitting outside on his back porch, happy memories come back. And at age 97, he’s got plenty of time to reminisce. As he says, “I don’t do nothing.”

Brooks appears to value visitors as much as his photos. But he doesn’t get many these days. He admits he’s lazy when it comes to writing letters to friends.

“I don’t think he’s ever lied a single time in his life,” said Brooks’s son John, who runs the Town House Apartments with his wife Julia. “And he’s always had a positive attitude. He wakes up whistling and singing. And that’s one of the reasons he’s lived so long.” He’s lived so long his wife, his ten brothers and sisters and many of his close friends have died.

I’ve lived in Town House Apartments for more than a year, often waving to him as I whizzed by on my bike. He always waved back and smiled as if we were close friends. Why didn’t I ever stop and say hi?

The next time I visited, I didn’t even knock. Even with his hearing aides on, he might not have heard me. I walked in since he never locks his doors during the day. As soon as I sat next to him on the back porch he grinned, and told me he was glad I came right in.

In less than a minute, he’s back to the beginning of his story. And if you have a set of ears, he’ll tell you.

“He can’t remember yesterday, but he can remember what happened 50 years ago – and names, and dates and days and he’s right on it,” Julia said.

He’ll tell you how his favorite number is 11 because he was born on November 11, 1905. He’ll tell you about how he never started fights, but wasn’t afraid to throw punches growing up in Bolton, England. He’ll tell you how he never took a licking either. He’ll tell you about how he started working at a spinning mill at age 12, and how he quit school so he could work 10 hour days by age 13. He’ll tell you how much he loved soccer and still follows the games on television. He’ll tell you how much he loved his mom’s meat and potato pie. He’ll tell you how his dad headed to the bars every night after work. He’ll tell you how he almost died when he was about 10 from scarlet fever. He’ll tell you how it took six days to travel to Boston by boat when he was 17. He’ll tell you about Mount Hope Finishing Company. He’ll show you his watch that was given to him when he retired in 1973. He’ll tell you how much he loved working at Mount Hope for half a century and why he decided to retire. “I wanted to give some young fellow the chance to move up,” he said. “Then somebody else would get a better job.”

And of course, he’ll tell you about his family. That’s why he has those photos specially arranged. They stand on his living room bureau. They’re above it on the wall. They’re on the other wall in the living room. They’re in his bedroom and guest bedroom.

“This is my family,” he says. “Here’s my mother and my father during the first World War. And this is my brother. He’s dead. That’s Billy. He’s dead too. My two brothers married two sisters. And that’s my wife. That’s my wife’s father and mother. There’s my grandmother and my great grandmother and my aunt. There’s my wife on both sides.” You have two of the same pictures of your wife. You like that one, huh? “I tell you, I like them all.”

Keep talking and he’ll tell you, for the second or third time, about his job working for Mount Hope in North Dighton, Mass., and that he stuck with the company even though he had to move to Butner, N.C. in 1952. Keep listening and it’s back to the photos on his wall...

When his son, John Jr., was 6 years old, John refused to go on strike despite the fact many workers at Mount Hope were upset. John didn’t believe in striking. He had a family to feed. One night, about 40 strikers appeared in John’s front yard. They told him to join them. With his family next to him, he refused to join. They walked away upset. One worker threatened, “Well, your son has to go to school tomorrow.” John answered, “Yes, he’ll get to school tomorrow. And if he doesn’t get to school tomorrow, you’ll be the first one I see.” Young John got to school with no hassle the next day.

“My dad was never a big man,” John Jr. said. “He didn’t weigh over 130 pounds most of his life. But he didn’t take anything from anybody. Nobody pushed him around.”

Maybe that’s why he’s so happy. He never was worried or afraid. He has no regrets. He never smoked and claims he never got a headache. He doesn’t feel a day over 18, but he knows...

Looking at an inscription, next to the photos, about his Uncle Robert, who died in World War I, he says: “He was good. He was nice. In Turkey, that’s where he died. He was the seventh son of a seventh son. It makes you think when you look at something like that. I’ve been very fortunate because he was just a young fellow.”

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Sweating It Out

Thousands of people around you are sweating. You wish you could sweat like them. But on this particular evening in late August you are really sweating. You are sweating like a man in the front row of a church that had just slept with the preacher’s daughter.

In the next two hours you’ll lose about four-to-six pounds in pure sweat. The short shorts you wore with the T-shirt and turtleneck and your knee-high socks might as well have been in a thunder shower because there’s a huge puddle left over after you wring them out.

But even though it’s about 40 degrees hotter around you than it is for the 50,000 people nearby, you love it. It’s a blast! After all, you are dressed up as Ramses, the UNC mascot. And it is the home opener against perennial football-power Florida State.

If you’re Andrew Head, one of three people that will rotate wearing the heavy Ramses costume during the course of the game, it feels like you’re wearing a huge coat with a football helmet on. But you tend to forget that when you run out of the locker room tunnel with the UNC flag in hand. Behind you is a pack of frenzied football players, hoisting their helmets in the air as the crowd erupts. You forget you normally can’t hear someone while wearing the costume unless they talk directly into your eyes or scream. And for a moment you forget about the thick layer of foam padding and fur – about two or three inches of solid insulation – on the Ramses’ head. On this particular day it is the loudest the crowd will get, and you realize you’re one of the reasons.

“It’ll give you the cold chills,” said Head, who is in his fourth year as mascot, but is more of a mascot coach this year. “It will give you cold chills for sure.”

Did you say “cold?” But even without the exuberance and chills you get, you’d still be obligated to run out the flag during the pre-game celebration by the football players. After all, it started two years earlier when you ran out the flag and the UNC team ended the FSU dynasty with a 41-9 win. And as it turned out, every game you (Head) ran out the flag that season the team won. While every time you didn’t run it out, it lost. But you didn’t pick up on the trend. The players did. And that is why the football team still gets extra excited when you carry out the flag. That’s why you rode to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl two years earlier despite not expecting to go on the trip.

Since you started putting on the Carolina blue and white costume, you’ve noticed how superstitious the team is. Gosh, even with a gazillion pairs of sneakers the women’s basketball team receives, some players still have to wear a lucky pair.

You’ve also noticed fans can be a little kooky. Like the time an ECU fan punched you in the face during the game two years ago. No, it wasn’t Head who took the punch. It was John Colpitts, who with Scott Jansen complete this year’s trio. They were the lucky three that survived tryouts, which take place in the fall and spring at the same time as cheerleading tryouts.

“We’ll put them in a suit and it’s kind of a charisma thing,” Head said. “Some people just look good in the suit. Some people don’t.”

When they decided that you looked good in the suit you went to a bunch of pre-game events first before stepping out in front of 50,000 people. But once you started putting on the suit on Saturdays in the fall, what fun!

Sure you have no peripheral vision. Sure you have to drink gatorade “like it is going out of style” during games like the FSU one. Sure you don’t get to see much of the game. But you’re the one that jumps up in the air with excitement when you see the crowd jump up in the air. You are the one that dances alongside the band conductor. And how about crowd-surfing on top of the band? You love that!

Besides that jerk from ECU, everyone seems to love you as well. Everywhere you walk, you get smiles and high-fives. To Toddlers, you’re like a big stuffed animal.

And it doesn’t seem like you mind taking a photograph with three attractive UNC girls in the front row. During the second half, you shoot T-shirts into a sea of eager hands. You are amazed what people will do for a free T-shirt – even leaning over the upper-deck railing so they can catch it. That is why you try to shoot the shirts into the upper or lower deck. You don’t want any casualties at a football game.

A safer activity you enjoy is the prearranged skit with opponents’ mascots. For instance at the Syracuse game, you watched the Orangeman get down on his knees and beg for mercy. But you didn’t show any, and you got a huge cheer of approval from the student section when you put the Orangeman on a life-sized orange squeezer, pretending to squeeze out juice.

You got some gig being the mascot. Well, at least minus the times when there is only one Ramses suit and you have to get sloppy seconds.

“It’s cold and wet,” Hand said. “It’s disgusting and nasty and it smells bad. And it’s somebody else’s sweat.”