What happened to North Carolina in 2017 should never happen to any program.
When the Tar Heels limped across the finish line, coach Joe Sagula could only shake his head and think back to early on his volleyball career, when Sagula — now heading into the his 29th year at UNC — was the head coach at Penn.
Late one season, almost 30 years ago, while in the midst of a run toward the Ivy League championship, his starting middle got hurt.
“We didn’t know if she would come back, but it was an ankle. We figured maybe. And I’d been coaching five years, maybe, and I’m telling the head trainer, ‘We’re gonna win this if have this kid.’ ”
And what the trainer told him stayed with Sagula.
“We will do everything to get this kid back, and I hope she’ll make it, but I can’t tell you for sure. But if you’ve been doing your job as a coach, then you’ll have somebody ready to take her place.”
And for the first 27 years he was at North Carolina, Sagula remembered that.
“That’s why I always wanted depth.”
But then came last season.
“I had people ready to take someone’s place, but the people taking the places were rookies and then they were getting hurt and at one point, there was nobody left to take anybody’s place.”
The list of injuries is almost not to be believed, especially when you consider that a multitude of them were concussions. What’s, more even a manager got hit in the head and got a concussion.
“Here’s something I’ve learned: There are no two people the same when it comes to concussions,” Sagula said. “You and I both get hit the same way the same day with the same velocity, how you feel and I feel will be completely different. You can be ready in two days and it might take me two months. It’s the most frustrating thing to diagnose and figure out for a doctor.”
In 2016, UNC finished 29-4, won the ACC at 19-1, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 16. There was every reason to be optimistic that the 2017 Tar Heels would be comparable. But after a 14-14 finish, 11-9 in the ACC, Sagula was left looking for answers. What’s more, a handful of players transferred, leaving the 2018 roster with a completely new look.
But back to 2017, when Sagula said two incoming freshmen had had concussions before arriving in Chapel Hill. One, he said, had not been diagnosed. Another, the 2016 ACC freshman of the year, Julia Scoles, got hit in the head in a pick-up game before the season started (Scoles has since transferred to Hawai’i to play just beach).
Sagula said Scoles, an outside hitter, then got hit again in UNC’s practice.
“(A) ball hits her indirectly, you wouldn’t think it was anything much, but the symptoms presented themselves a lot worse than the first one,” Sagula said. “Nausea, headaches, dizziness, that kind of stuff. That was about eight days before we even started, so we said she’d be out and we’d work her back in.
“Halfway through preseason she started to practice on a limited basis and was doing OK.”
Then one of his setters, Mariah Evans, got a concussion. She never played. This past April, UNC announced that Evans was going to take a medical retirement and work with the program as a student assistant coach.
“So the first tournament of the year we’re going to play at Wisconsin and Minnesota and we don’t have our setter from the year before, so we’re going with the freshman setter and a transfer,” Sagula recalled. “Neither had much experience and our best outside at that point who is also our best passer is maybe going to play a little bit of back row.”
But Scoles, whom Sagula said got hit again, was lost for the season. She played in a total of six sets.
“We had to start making adjustments. That was the story of the season from there,” Sagula said. “Every time something happened we had to adapt and make another change.
“You’d plan your practice and plan your lineup and something else would happen. We’d go to plan B or plan C.”
The Tar Heels were swept by both Minnesota and Wisconsin and then went to Puerto Rico and lost to Auburn in four and got swept by Florida. Finally at home the next weekend, they swept LIU Brooklyn and beat LSU in four.
“It was a tough preseason, but we played tough teams and felt like we were going to be OK,” Sagula said. “Then our libero (Mia Fradenburg) gets a concussion.”
Sagula said they thought about redshirting her, but she came back with eight matches left. And then in a late-season practice, “she’s tying her shoe, a ball bounces somewhere and catches her off guard and catches the bottom of her chin. She’s out.”
Then there was 5-foot-7 Sehrena Hull, who was playing back row for an outside. The coaches decided to leave her on the front row because she was doing well, but then Hull broke her thumb.
“She says ‘I’m not getting surgery. I refuse,’ ” Sagula said. “ … She’s playing, playing well, and two weeks later bangs her head on the floor diving for the ball. She had migraines before that and she never came back.”
Hull got her opportunity because Taylor Borup, who has since transferred to Oregon, had a hairline fracture and was in a boot for a month. Besides concussions, there were others missing for various reasons. Sydnye Fields, who has since transferred to Texas A&M, kept fainting.
“If there is a test she’s had it,” Sagula said. “From people at UNC, to specialists outside UNC, to a specialist back at home at Houston. Nobody knows.” Fields played in 45 sets, Borup 68 of UNC’s 106 total.
Maddie Grace Hough, a defensive specialist, was also lost to compartment syndrome, Sagula said.
Keimaya Hunter, a back-up middle/right side, was also lost to a concussion half way through the season
And then even one of the managers got hit in the head by a ball and had a concussion.
Things were so bad, Sagula said, he called defensive-specialist Greer Mosman, who had played for the Tar Heels before but didn’t come out in 2017.
“I call her up and say ‘Greer, we only have two DS’s and one’s a libero. We need some defense. Would you be interested in coming back?’ She says she really misses it, so she comes back to be part of the team. In 48 hours, God bless them, our compliance office got all the paperwork through and she was eligible.”
Mosman played back row for Madison Laufenberg, Sagula said, who had a continuing battle with Type 1 Diabetes. But late in the season, she had a stress fracture in her tibia and was shut down.
One can only imagine. UNC started the season with an 18-player roster and finished with six front-row players who played, four back-row players, a serving specialist and a setter.
Another player, Taylor Leath, who played in every match and led UNC in kills, earned her undergraduate degree and transferred near her home to Penn State for her final year of eligibility.
“We had no fight left in us. It was a year of making so many changes. It took its toll on the injured, without question. It took its toll on the players because it was just an emotional drain. And it took its toll on the staff, as well, just the uncertainty,” Sagula said.
“I told the team at the end of the year, ‘If somebody told you this was going to happen, could you plan for this? You’re going to lose eight players, so make your preparations.’ I still wouldn’t know what to do.”
In 37 years of coaching, Sagula simply had never gone through anything like it.
“I hope we’ve had our quota for some time,” Sagula said, “because it’s scary.”