Out of the 14 true freshmen listed on the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team’s roster, coach Joe Breschi has started just two — Evan Connell and Steve Pontrello — in UNC’s two scrimmages this season.
But in Saturday’s scrimmage against the defending national champion Loyola Greyhounds, one of the biggest freshman performances came off the bench.
Six freshman Tar Heels saw action against Loyola — who holds the nation’s top preseason ranking — including goalkeeper Kieran Burke whose command of the defense allowed UNC to slow down a strong Loyola attack.
“Burke has been killing it in practice, and for him to come in and play absolutely amazing is awesome and great for his confidence,” Connell said.
Burke replaced redshirt senior goalkeeper Steven Rastivo at the start of the second quarter and remained in goal for the rest of the scrimmage.
Last week, Rastivo played the first quarter in UNC’s scrimmage against Denver — the team that knocked UNC out of the NCAA tournament last season — before redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Andrew O’Connell took his place.
Breschi said that he planned to use this strategy in both scrimmages to give his goalkeepers an opportunity to compete for the starting job.
“I think it’s a dog fight there for who’s going to start next week, and they’re all battling for that starting position,” Breschi said.
“That’s what these two tough scrimmages help you do — manage your roster a little bit and figure out who’s going to be where. But our young guys gained a lot of great experience today, and Kieran was one of them.”
Burke tallied 13 saves against the Greyhounds and held Loyola senior attackman Mike Sawyer to only one goal. Sawyer’s 52 goals last season were two shy of Loyola’s record.
“It felt great,” Burke said. “(Sawyer’s) got a cannon, that’s for sure. I was just getting lucky and stopping the ball.
“I still have to figure it all out, but I’m happy about my performance.”
For Breschi, UNC’s two scrimmages against Denver and Loyola have given his freshman players a chance to get accustomed to playing at the collegiate level.
And as the Tar Heels prepare to kick off regular season play this week against Air Force, Breschi said he hopes his new players will start the season with two things: confidence and a sense of belonging.
“The goal of these two scrimmages was to play at a high level so these freshmen can anticipate what’s coming ahead,” Breschi said. “We have the number one strength of schedule in this country, so they’re going to be playing great games weekly.
“The scrimmages were an opportunity for them to gain a little bit of confidence and also know that they belong at this level.”
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