After an unprecedented turn of events that could have only happened in 2020, Duke volleyball has had three matches postponed over the last two weeks and its two matches at North Carolina moved up to this weekend.
Due to COVID-19 and injury-related issues, both Virginia and Virginia Tech were forced to postpone their matches with the Blue Devils.
Virginia Tech was initially slated to play in Cameron Indoor Stadium this weekend, but contact tracing decimated its roster late last week. On top of injuries, the Hokies suddenly found themselves 12 players short and in no position to take on Duke on the road.
Virginia was a different and stranger story. Last Friday, shortly after the Blue Devils swept the Cavaliers 3-0 in the first of two matches, Virginia decided that it would no longer be able to compete in the second match the next day. Like Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers’ roster was in shambles due to COVID-19 contact tracing and prior injuries. While no players tested positive or were injured between the two scheduled matches, Virginia still decided it couldn’t compete the next night, postponing its matches for this weekend as well.
“We were extremely disappointed we didn't get to play Saturday night,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said.
Because North Carolina was initially supposed to play Virginia this weekend, both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels found themselves with an empty weekend on their schedules. Originally slated to match up Oct. 23 and Oct. 25, Nagel and North Carolina head coach Joe Sagula quickly decided to push their two matches to this Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. to fill the empty spots.
Now that the COVID-induced chaos has been handled logistically, Duke finds itself in another difficult situation, this time on the court. Under its original schedule, the 14th-ranked Blue Devils would’ve had six matches under their belt before traveling to Carmichael Arena to take on their Tobacco Road rivals. Now, Duke will enter its toughest matches of the season with half as much experience as it expected.
“It’s a bummer, for sure,” Nagel said. “But you know what? With this time of COVID, we're just grateful for the opportunity to compete and play. It's [two] weeks earlier than we would have originally played, but I feel like if you've got an open date and you've got two healthy teams right now, let's get the matches in.”
What makes North Carolina (1-1, 1-1 in the ACC) such a threatening opponent is its remarkably versatile roster. Just about any player can cover multiple positions on the floor, which means that there are limitless possibilities for formations and plays.
“[North Carolina] moved their players around quite a bit,” Nagel said. “And they have so many different looks that I think that's a little bit of a challenge, because depending on how many sets you play they could have a few different lineups. They've been moving things around quite a bit so I think that's gonna be a challenge.”
This adjustable offense was one of the reasons the Tar Heels dismantled Duke so efficiently last year en route to 3-1 and 3-0 victories. Their greatest strength was adapting on the fly to limit the Blue Devils’ successes and exploit their weaknesses, especially late in sets. In the final points, Duke tended to crumble under the pressure and fail to adapt to the ever-changing North Carolina offense.
“I think there’s going to be some very tough moments and I think it’s going to be important for our team to hang in there mentally,” Nagel said. “I think probably the mental piece will be our biggest challenge.”
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Of course, neither the Tar Heels nor the Blue Devils are the same team as they were last year.
With senior outside hitter Payton Schwantz fully healthy and leading the charge this season, Duke (3-0, 3-0) has been playing with poise that was nowhere to be seen previously. Communication errors that plagued the team last season have all but vanished and aggression is at an all-time high, as evident by the Blue Devils’ No. 3 national ranking in blocks per set.
On the other hand, North Carolina has added some new pieces to an already exceptional roster.
“They do have some new players,” Nagel said. “They’re starting two freshmen: a freshman outside and a freshman middle that we haven’t really gotten to play against before. And they have a transfer middle blocker as well that’s played some middle and some right-side. So we’ve got a few different things that we’ve got to prepare for that they didn’t have last year.”
There will be no room for errors or hesitation if Duke wants to keep its perfect record intact. Blockers will need to be fearless and hitters will need to be aggressive.
If the Blue Devils can take a page out of the Tar Heels’ book and adjust to their opponent on short notice, however, both matches are certainly winnable.