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Virginia ventures south

Cavaliers anticipate large crowd for bout with UNC, tough test at N.C. State

After collecting its first win of the regular season during Fall Break, the Virginia volleyball team hits the road this weekend to face off against conference foes North Carolina and N.C. State, hungry for a second taste of victory.

Last weekend, the Cavaliers (7-10, 1-6 ACC) managed to split their home matches against Wake Forest and Duke, downing the Demon Deacons 3-1 before falling 3-2 in a five-set contest against Duke. Although the Cavaliers certainly were not flawless during the two-game slate, Virginia coach Lee Maes was pleased with his squad's overall drive.

"I'm really proud of the effort that we're giving," Maes said. "The big thing for us was knowing that if we give great effort, it is going to allow us to continue to compete for points, and that was certainly what we saw this weekend against Wake Forest and Duke."

Senior outside hitter Simone Asque attributed the team's sustained effort to an increase in the intensity of practice leading up last weekend's matchups. Maes instituted the change in practice style in an attempt to motivate his squad to turn its season around and gain momentum heading into the final stretch of competition.

"It was nice that we had kind of changed the way we ran practice the week prior to [the games]," Asque said. "I think that really helped having more emphasis on playing and scrimmaging each other ... [It] really helped to [boost our] competing and winning, and [continuing to] find ways to win."

In addition to honing their competitive drive, the Cavaliers are also focusing on shoring up their offensive attack before squaring off against their border state rivals.

"One of the primary factors that go into any team's success is our ability to pass and control the ball," Maes said. "Our best player at doing that has been [sophomore libero] Emily Rottman. She's been very consistent at doing that throughout her career here, and she's been our stabilizing force at that aspect of the game."

Rottman, who leads the team in digs and average digs per set, recorded a total of 38 digs and 25 kills against Wake Forest and Duke. Meanwhile, Asque notched another 20-kill match against Wake Forest en route to tallying 41 total kills during the weekend.

Virginia hopes to rely on Rottman and Asque's collective firepower during this weekend's road stint as it will likely need all the production it can muster, especially against a particularly strong Tar Heel squad (14-4, 6-1 ACC) which has won eight of its last nine matches.

"[North Carolina is] a really strong team," Asque said. "They've got really strong outsides and just historically they've been a very solid passing team, so it will be very important for us to bring a lot of intensity in our serving game."

In addition to North Carolina's talented offense, the Cavaliers will also likely be forced to combat a rowdy crowd inside the Dean E. Smith Center. The clash between the Tar Heels and the Cavaliers will occur immediately prior to North Carolina's annual "Midnight Madness" event during which the men's basketball team officially practices for the first time. Asque anticipates a large crowd at the game as the North Carolina faithful will likely pack the arena early in anticipation of the basketball team's kick-off.

"Their stands will be packed in the whole gym," Asque said. "[But] it will be good because while their stands will be packed, it's not necessarily for their home team ... We can kind of steal their crowd away if we make good plays."

Although a group of raucous Tar Heel spectators and a tough Wolfpack squad (14-6, 2-5 ACC) which has forced a program-record five-straight five-set matches this season await the Cavaliers, Virginia remains confident that it can jumpstart a season turnaround this weekend.

"The biggest thing for us is constant daily improvement, continued focusing on giving our best for each point and learning from experiences that we've had; those things are going to carry us as the season progresses," Maes said.