UNC athletics went 7-0 last week in a grand total of five sports. For three of them, that's usually expected. The field hockey team and the men's and women's soccer squads are all highly ranked, and have built up pretty impressive pedigrees in recent years. The volleyball team however, has flown under the radar, and to open up conference play with two straight wins is a good sign.
Women's volleyball is kind of the odd-man out of UNC's fall Olympic sports. While the team has more ACC titles than any other school (9 in the ACC Tournament, plus two since the tournament was abandoned in 2004) they, and ACC volleyball in general, have never had much of an impact in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels have made it to the Sweet Sixteen only once; last year Florida State became the first ACC squad to make a regional final.
In the last few years, ACC volleyball has pretty much been a contest between four or five teams. Florida State, Miami, Duke, and North Carolina have 14 of the top 16 finishes in the last four years, and FSU, Duke, UNC and Clemson have all of the titles of the post-tournament era. The Blue Devils in particular have had Carolina's number, with the Tar Heels managing only two wins in eleven tries since 2006.
I tell you all of this to impress upon you how important Sunday's win over Duke in Carmichael was. After sweeping Wake Forest 3-0 the previous afternoon, Carolina quickly fell behind against the Blue Devils, dropping the first set 25-22 and fall behind in the second 22-21. They rallied to score four straight points and take the set before jumping out to an early lead in the next, which they won 25-21. UNC would lose a close-fought fourth set before crushing Duke in the fifth by a margin of 15-7, taking the match.
Five-game volleyball matches generally produce bigger statistics, especially when they're closely fought, but even taking that into account UNC was impressive. Four Tar Heels finished with double-digit kills, and Emily McGee and ACC Player of the Week Chaniel Nelson combined that with double-digit digs. Carolina led the conference in kills per set last season, and although they're middle-of-the-pack so far this season, they have held opponents to the lowest hitting percentage in the conference. They've dropped only two matches so far this season, the opener against Kentucky in straight sets and an ACC road game against N.C. State.
Carolina returned more starters this year than any other ACC team, and they're in a good position to win the conference. The key test will come in two weeks on a weekend road trip to both FSU and Miami, but first they'll have Clemson in a match televised on ESPNU on Wednesday and a surprisingly hot Georgia Tech team at home this weekend. The Tar Heels remain unranked, but the season is young yet.