When their teams met in October last season, longtime coaches Joe Sagula of North Carolina and Chris Poole of Florida State took a great deal of satisfaction in seeing how far the ACC had come as a women’s volleyball conference.

For many years, it was the Tar Heels and the Seminoles battling for ACC supremacy and carrying the conference banner in the NCAA Tournament. So, as the deans of the conference’s coaches, Sagula and Poole — more often than not — would spearhead the discussions when the ACC coaches got together.

They talked about ways to beef up schedules to help RPIs. They talked about trying to recruit better and show that talented players didn’t have to land in the Big Ten or Pac 12 to be successful.

Lo and behold, 2021 seemed to be the realization of that goal. Pittsburgh and Louisville  both advanced to the NCAA national semifinals and Georgia Tech lost to the Louisville in the NCAA regional final.

“We were both thrilled for it because that’s the vision we had,” Sagula said. “To see it come to fruition is extremely gratifying.”

There was just one problem. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

As Sagula and Poole chatted before their match, they also knew they weren’t playing for an ACC title.

“Unfortunately, the days when it was North Carolina and Florida State at the top haven’t happened for quite a while,” Sagula said. “The fact that he and I were playing for fifth and sixth says a lot about what has happened.

“I don’t know if we’re the measuring stick anymore. I think now with what Louisville and Pittsburgh have done the past couple of years, they have kind of raised the bar … I like the fact that people respect our program for our consistency over the years. But now, we’re in an era where people are like, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”

Lately, North Carolina hasn’t produced the kind of results it is accustomed to seeing. The Tar Heels went 21-9 (10-8 in the ACC) and sneaked into the NCAA Tournament last season — losing in the first round to Tennessee — and that was their first trip to the tourney after a four-year hiatus.

In that four-year stretch, North Carolina finished no higher than tied for third (2019) and as low as a tie for 14th (2018) in the ACC.

North Carolina coach Joe Sagula and assistant Susan Clements/UNC Athletics

That followed a stretch when UNC went to seven NCAA tournaments in a row and eight in nine years.

“One of our biggest things for our class, we came in at a tough time,” said senior libero and co-captain Karenna Wurl. “It was after a ton of transfers, and they called us a rebuilding team when we came in. So our big thing through our four years was bettering the team every year and putting the program in a better spot than when we came.

“And I feel like, so far, we’ve done a pretty good job with that.”

Returning to the NCAA Tournament was a big step in the right direction for the proud program. The trick now is for Carolina to reassert itself as an ACC title contender.

Sagula said that process began last season. A group of graduate transfers — Meghan Neelon (Alabama), Emily Zinger (San Francisco) and Nia Robinson (Northwestern) — laid the groundwork for 2022.

They, Sagula said, paved the way for players such as current sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster, who was the 2021 ACC Freshman of the Year, and junior Kaya Merkler, a local product whom Sagula calls one of the best middles in the country.

Mabrey Shaffmaster was the ACC Freshman of the Year/UNC Athletics

They also raised the bar for an incoming freshman class that will be relied upon heavily this season.

“The group we brought in last year … have been so important for us to get back to where we were,” Sagula said. “They bought into the culture, and they bought into the traditions immediately.

“They now have set the stage for these freshmen — it’s a highly ranked class, top 10 in the country — to say, ‘OK, it’s our responsibility to take what the ’21 class did and keep it moving in the right direction.’ ”

Among the freshman class — ranked No. 10 by VolleyballMag.com earlier this month — are two highly touted setters in Anita Babic from Phoenix and Ella Bostic from Carmel, Indiana. They are the only setters on the roster, so one (or both?) will be steering Sagula’s offense.

Both are adept at running a 5-1 and, at 6-feet, both can be assets at the net. Bostic, meanwhile, teamed with fellow Indiana native Shaffmaster to help the Munciana club team win a national title.

And though both are freshmen, Sagula is confident that their big-match experience at the club level will help them hit the ground running.

“Already this summer, when we just had open gyms … it’s a big difference going from club volleyball to college volleyball, but I kind of feel like they made the transition really, really quick and are already competing at a high level,” Wurl said.

Karenna Wurl/UNC Athletics

Sagula also is expecting big things from three other freshmen: middle Sadie Swift from Austin, Texas; libero/defensive specialist Maddy May from Winterville, N.C.; and middle Liv Mogridge from Lutz, Florida. But their contributions, Sagula said, won’t just be on the stat sheet. The veteran coach and his upperclass players are expecting all the freshmen to take ownership in elevating the program.

“I feel like the personalities of our team are welcoming the freshmen to have a role and have a voice,” Sagula said. “They have been encouraged to have an active role in their future.”

Added Wurl: “Something we kind of emphasized from the start is they might be freshmen, but they shouldn’t act like freshmen and we won’t treat them like freshmen. We all just want everyone to be equals and are open to (them) even holding us older girls accountable.”

Of course, the freshmen won’t have to carry all of the load. There are plenty of veterans to help. This season’s big grad transfer “get” was former Notre Dame standout Charley Niego, a four-time All-ACC honoree (twice first team, twice second team).

With the Fighting Irish last season, Niego, who is from Chicago, averaged 3.02 kills per set and nearly three digs per set.

Charley Niego

“Over her four years, she’s kicked our butts, so it’s good to have her on our side,” Sagula said.

More than anything, Niego will help to take some of the pressure off Shaffmaster, who registered 3.57 kills and 2.29 digs per set and finished ninth in the conference in points per set (4.00) last season. Having Robinson, Sagula said, enabled Shaffmaster to blossom, but now that Robinson is gone, Shaffmaster wasn’t going to “sneak up” on anybody (Shaffmaster, from New Castle, Indiana, the town that produced basketball great Steve Alord, among others, is the younger sister of Minnesota setter Melani Shaffmaster).

Enter Niego, who will give opponents something else to worry about. And together, they give the Tar Heels two left-side, six-rotation players, something, Sagula said, the team hasn’t had for a long time.

The home-grown Merkler averaged nearly a block per set and hit a robust .350 last season.

“She just keeps getting better and better,” Sagula said. “She is playing as good as anybody in the country, and I think she has established herself as one of the top five middles in the country. She’s a go-to player, and it’s great when you have a go-to middle. And this year, I think we can go to her even more because I feel like our passing will be even sharper.”

Kaya Merkler hopes to have plenty to celebrate this season/UNC Athletics

Wurl is the leader on the back line. Last season, she had a serve-receive percentage of .984 while averaging 4.07 digs per set (fourth in the conference).

“We have a great defensive corps,” she said. “I feel like we’re all competitive and play at a high level, so we push each other really well … Serve receive-wise, that’s a big emphasis with all of us. We just want to put our team in the best position right from the start.”

The Tar Heels also are expected to get a lift from a pair of seniors who were slowed by injuries last season: right side Carly Peck and outside Parker Austin. Austin played in only 54 sets because of back issues, and a balky shoulder limited Peck to 56 sets.

During the shortened 2020 season, Austin averaged 2.75 kills per set, and Peck contributed 1.31 kills per set.

“As we’ve gotten into preseason, it’s like their injuries never happened,” Wurl said. “They kind of got their groove back really, really quick, which has been great. Having them both as pins and having that depth has been super helpful for us.”

Now, it will be time to see if it is helpful enough to get Carolina back to the top of the ACC.

The climb won’t be easy. Three ACC schools, Louisville (No. 4), Pitt (6) and Georgia Tech (9), are ranked in the top 10 in the AVCA’s preseason poll. And even among the “others receiving votes,” North Carolina is behind Miami (Fla.).

Florida State also was among those receiving votes. So, if preseason polls mean anything, Sagula and Poole might find themselves chatting before a mid-fall match and looking up at three or four other ACC teams.

But North Carolina plans on taking another step toward reclaiming its spot as the ACC’s premier program.

“I think we have the right combination of veterans along with young players,” Sagula said. “I think that mixture will do two things: get this team back to another level for the NCAA Tournament and put us on a path for these next couple of years that will allow us to be a relevant, top-10 team in the country.”

Wurl agreed: “The level of play is high across the board for all positions, which is something we might not have had completely in the past. And everyone is healthy as we speak … I am definitely confident that we can make a decent run in the (NCAA) tournament, so I am definitely looking forward to that.”

North Carolina opens the season next Friday at Colorado State in Fort Collins and then makes the short drive to Greeley on Saturday to play UC Santa Barbara and the host team, Northern Colorado.

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