EvansSpike_VBvsKansasState_CS

Junior opposite hitter Melissa Evans leaps for a spike. NC State defeated Kansas State in Reynolds Coliseum on Aug. 30th, 2019.

New days are upon the NC State volleyball program. Following a poor 2019 season that saw the Pack go 11-19, a head coaching change was made, with Luka Slabe taking over the reins of the program. In his first year with the Pack, Slabe improved the team’s poor 36.7% win percentage mark to a more tolerable 47.1%. Though the Wolfpack only played in 17 matches all year last season, there is plenty of room for optimism in the program.

If that wasn’t enough excitement for the Wolfpack faithful, Slabe has returned stateside from an Olympic stint with Team USA as assistant coach, helping lead the team to its first-ever gold medal. With the start of the volleyball team’s season just days away, let’s break down the Pack’s upcoming slate of matches.

Exhibition play vs. Coastal Carolina

Fans typically write off exhibition matches in any sport, but there is plenty of room for excitement surrounding this matchup on both sides. Coastal Carolina was a powerhouse in the Sun Belt Conference last season, working its way to an 18-1 record. The Chanticleers only surrendered 10 sets all season. The Sun Belt had fairly easy competition, but an 18-1 record is nothing to sneeze at. It will be interesting to monitor how Coastal Carolina fares without offensive juggernaut Anett Nemeth. This matchup will take place on Saturday, Aug. 21, at 4 p.m. inside Reynolds Coliseum.

Tennessee Classic

The Wolfpack kicks off the regular season with a litmus test against similarly-powered teams. NC State kicks off the event with a matchup against ETSU on Friday, Aug. 27, a team that had an up-and-down 2020-21 season. Offensively, ETSU is led by outside hitter Olivia Cunningham, the former SoCon Freshman of the Year. Cunningham missed all but five games last season due to injury, but in limited time she posted 4.68 kills per set, the most on the team by far. Defensively, the Bucs are commandeered by libero Sydney Cherney, who led ETSU with 219 digs, a number that would’ve ranked best on the Pack.

East Tennessee State is also getting three transfers into their program and should be injected with renewed energy after ending last season on a win streak.

After that, the Pack will participate in two matches on Aug. 28, going up against Texas Tech and Tennessee. Like ETSU, Texas Tech ended last season on a win streak, but was a slightly better all-around team since it put up a mediocre record in the cutthroat Big 12. The Red Raiders return some serious firepower in outside hitters Caitlin Dugan and Samantha Sanders, who combined for 562.5 points last season. Setter Alex Kirby is another name to watch, as she posted 715 assists last season and is entering her senior season.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is the only one of the four teams participating in the event to receive votes for the AVCA preseason top 25. The Volunteers are spearheaded by the defensive trio of setter Natalie Hayward, defensive specialist/libero Madison Bryant and outside hitter Lily Felts, who all posted over 180 digs last season, with Bryant accounting for 289.

NC State matches up well with each of these teams, having more all-around depth than ETSU and having the necessary defense to keep up with Texas Tech’s high-octane offense. Out of the three teams, the Pack matches up the worst against Tennessee, and picking up a W against the Vols would be huge for setting the tone for the season, though two of three matches wouldn’t be bad either.

Nonconference play

After the Tennessee Classic, the Pack continues its nonconference stretch across a variety of teams. Across this stretch of six matches, NC State faces Wofford, East Carolina, Colorado State, Brown, Rutgers and NJIT, with the first three presenting the most difficult matchups for the Pack.

All of Wofford, East Carolina and Colorado State finished ahead of the Wolfpack in the final 2020 RPI rankings and will return much of their rosters due to the extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA during COVID-19.

Wofford had a decent 10-7 record last season, but notably topped ETSU in two straight matches last season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Last season’s ETSU team was pretty even with last year’s Wolfpack squad, so it stands to reason that Wofford will be one of the more difficult nonconference matchups for the team. The Terriers are a perfectly balanced blend of offense and defense up and down their roster, and have four players that average over two kills per set.

East Carolina looks like it would be an easy matchup on paper following a poor 4-8 season, but ECU finished 53 spots ahead of NC State in the RPI rankings in April. Further, the Pirates defeated UNC-Chapel Hill last season with relative ease, a team that the Wolfpack struggled with. ECU also gave N.C. A&T troubles last year, a team that boasted the MEAC Player of the Year in Edie Brewer.

Colorado State is another well-balanced offensive team, and cracked the RPI’s top 100 at the end of the season. CSU returns defensive specialist Alexa Roumeliotis, who was named to the Mountain West All-Conference team and had a whopping 273 digs last season, 91 more than the Pack’s leader graduate defensive specialist Kaylee Frazier. The remaining three teams in this stretch figure to be easier matchups for the Pack.

2021 ACC-SEC Challenge

Midway through September, the Pack participates in its second mid-season event of the year, this time at Reynolds Coliseum. The Pack will play against a similarly matched Georgia team that went 8-14 last season and an Arkansas team that finished in the top 100 in the RPI rankings last year.

Arkansas went 14-8 last year and returns the dynamic offensive duo of Jillian Gillen and Taylor Head who combined for 564 kills on the year.

ACC play

After completing its nonconference play and events, the Pack will be faced with its truest test of the season: ACC competition. While there are several good teams on NC State’s nonconference slate, there are four ACC teams ranked in the AVCA preseason top 25. The Wolfpack will play all four teams after falling to each last year.

NC State kicks off conference play against Virginia, who went a measly 2-12 last season. Unfortunately, that’s about the only down time this Pack team will get in terms of competition as it follows that with a matchup against No. 9 Pitt. Pittsburgh went 18-5 last season and was listed as having one of the best recruiting classes in the nation by volleyballmag.com.

Further, the team retains all of its stacked roster, with Chinaza Ndee and Kayla Lund among the team’s stars. Lund is the most dominant player in the ACC, recognized by her ACC Player of the Year award and her selection to the USA women’s volleyball national team. Lund finished last season with 389 points, 329 kills, 260 digs and 45 blocks. There is not a more versatile player in the ACC. Because Pitt is coming off a run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, this is a marquee matchup to watch.

After that, the team continues with some exciting ACC matchups, first playing Florida State, who finished ranked ninth in the RPI rankings last season. The Pack will also take on a strong Syracuse team between ranked matchups. Then, the most painstaking part of the season will take place.

NC State faces an uncharacteristically difficult stretch of four matches, going up against No. 24 Georgia Tech, No. 13 Louisville and No. 25 Notre Dame in four straight matches, facing the Fighting Irish twice. This part of the season will make or break the Wolfpack’s postseason hopes given that it comes at the very end of the year, leaving the team with little chance to battle back if things go south.

Managing Editor

I'm Tristan Tucker, managing editor in the class of 2022 studying Communication Media and Statistics. I joined Technician in Fall 2018 and am a credentialed NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and SB Nation.