Everything Steve Pontrello does on the field is fast.
With the score between the No. 4 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team and No. 8 Virginia tied early in the third quarter on Friday, the junior midfielder blazed past the Virginia defense and ripped a shot into the top of the goal before anyone had time to react. Less than a minute later, Pontrello looped around the goal and quickly snuck a pass from senior attackman Joey Sankey into the net, giving UNC a 6-4 lead it would turn into a 10-6 win.
And all the while, he was still recovering from a hamstring injury.
“He’s not quite 100 percent yet, and he’d be the first to admit that,” Coach Joe Breschi said. “But he’s getting better every week.”
Soft tissue injuries have a tendency to linger and sap explosiveness, so Pontrello didn’t play in the first five games of the season. But he’s continued to improve as the season has progressed, and even 80 percent of Pontrello is too much for a lot of defenses.
“He’s just explosive; he’s got terrific stick skills,” Breschi said.
Pontrello’s efforts helped break open a close game. UNC’s defense stymied UVa. throughout the game, forcing 18 turnovers, while junior keeper Kieran Burke had 12 saves. Senior defenseman Jake Bailey played a vital role, forcing three turnovers and claiming eight ground balls on his own.
A strong performance by Virginia keeper Matt Barrett, who had 18 saves, kept his team in the game even under constant UNC bombardment. Bailey and the other seniors helped UNC remain poised on the back end even as the score remained close.
“We’ve been in those situations before,” Bailey said. “We’ve got a bunch of tough guys in that group. Even when things go bad, we bond together and find ways to win.”
Sankey added four goals — including three in the second half — to lead the team, while UNC recorded a 48-34 advantage in shots. Some teams might become frustrated at the lack of success offensively, but the Tar Heels maintained their composure and were rewarded when Pontrello broke in.
“Once you get to this point in the season, everyone is tough,” Sankey said. “Keep shooting, eventually he’ll break down.
“Fortunately for us, he broke down in the fourth quarter.”
UNC started four seniors, and several others made key contributions. Especially in ACC play, where all four teams UNC faces are ranked in the top 10, experience can prove to be the difference between a big win and a deflating loss.
“When you have four years of starting, you don’t get broken mentally easily,” Breschi said. “We never felt like they had a chance.”
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