North Carolina’s lacrosse season is defined by its close calls. One-goal losses to Johns Hopkins and Virginia. Setbacks against Denver and Notre Dame that were coinflips well into the fourth quarter.
And yet … the Tar Heels (7-6) can still author a turnaround in a weekend and revitalize their NCAA tournament hopes in the process.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said it’s still there,” coach Joe Breschi said. “And it is.”
And maybe best of all, fifth-seeded North Carolina’s senior class is well-versed in late-season comebacks as it enters Thursday’s ACC tournament date with fourth-seeded Syracuse (9-3) in Chapel Hill. Top-seeded Virginia awaits the winner in Saturday’s semifinals, with the title game set for May 4 at the site of the highest remaining seed.
There’s a bit of an echo from 2016, when Timmy Kelly was a second line midfielder as the Tar Heels shrugged off an unspectacular regular season and became the first unseeded team in tournament history to claim a national championship.
“Coming in here, you saw a prominent program that hadn’t missed the playoffs in 10 years,” Kelly said. “It was everything. It was why I came here. You wanted to go to the best school to be the best team you can be. My freshman year, we went through some ups and downs. It wasn’t easy. We were 8-6 heading into the playoffs. It wasn’t like we were this world-beating team, but we came together.”
Something similar occurred the following spring, when North Carolina was in danger of missing the postseason altogether. The Tar Heels entered the ACC tournament below .500, needed to win the event just to become eligible for the NCAA tournament and did so.
Those experiences are a reminder to Carolina’s upperclassmen how a lot can happen toward the end of a season. And with so many near-misses --- the Tar Heels led or tied in the second half of four of their losses --- there’s a sense Breschi’s team could have another late spurt in them.
“I think they’re two different teams, but we felt like in 2016 there were a lot of games we lost where we were better than the way we played,” said senior defenseman Jack Rowlett, the last starter from that title game still in the program. “That’s how we feel this year.”
It hasn’t been the easiest spring. Carolina was forced to lean even more heavily than anticipated on Rowlett, an honorable mention all-America pick last season, when it lost freshman Will Bowen to a season-ending injury in January. Offensively, the Tar Heels have stitched things together by committee.
“It’s just making those plays in crunch time at the end when you need it most,” Breschi said. “The effort’s been great. The energy’s been great. All the other things have been fantastic. It’s closing it out. We’re capable. We did it against Duke.”
That 10-8 defeat of the Blue Devils on March 30 is Carolina’s lone noteworthy victory, and it won’t be enough to get it back into the NCAA tournament. But this weekend is an exceptional opportunity for the Tar Heels to add to that resume, and give their senior class a chance to bookend their careers with yet another memorable surge.
“This team can do that,” Kelly said. “I hope we can do that, because I don’t want to leave this program worse than I found it. I think that’s a fear, but that fear has to motivate you. It shouldn’t bring you down. … We’re playing for our lives here. It’s win-or-go-home for us. I think it’s time we make those one or two plays, and I do think we’re capable of it.”