The North Carolina’s men’s lacrosse team might be young, but it is more focused than ever.
Despite losing 11 seniors from the 2015 roster — including Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter, who are UNC's No. 1 and No. 3 all-time leading scorers — expectations remain high for the Tar Heels this year.
Entering Saturday's opener against Michigan at Fetzer Field, UNC is ranked No. 6 in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Coaches Poll and No. 8 in the Cascade/Maverik Media Poll administered by Inside Lacrosse Magazine.
But junior co-captain Austin Pifani does not care about rankings. His primary concern is Michigan and proving that his young team is a legitimate national championship contender.
“We don’t try to listen too much to the noise,” Pifani said. “We keep it pretty in-house, and we know what we have. We lost a lot of guys last year, so there’s a lot of doubt. People don’t really know what to expect out of us.”
The Tar Heels return 30 letter winners from a 2015 squad that reached the NCAA quarterfinals. These players include preseason All-Americans Pifani, junior midfielder Tate Jozokos, junior midfielder Peyton Klawinski and junior attackman Luke Goldstock.
Pifani led the Tar Heels’ defense a season ago with 19 caused turnovers, and Goldstock looks to top his 2015 performance — which was highlighted by his school-record 50 goals.
“This year, this is a really close group and even more focused than last year, and I think we have all of the talent,” said senior attackman Steve Pontrello. “If we stick to what we know and listen to our coaches, I think the journey will be a fun one.”
But the Tar Heels still feel the loss of a dominant graduating class that included five All-Americans.
“Just watching some highlights from last year, it’s crazy just seeing how much (the Class of 2015) brought to the table,” Pifani said. “I think those guys really prepared our younger guys, as we’ll see on Saturday, to step up into their positions and hopefully execute.”
Saturday will be the second-ever meeting between UNC and Michigan. In 2012, the Tar Heels defeated the Wolverines 19-5 at Fetzer Field.
Michigan enters only its fifth season of varsity play after finishing 5-6 in 2015. The Wolverines beat Marquette 15-13 in their lone preseason scrimmage.
But the Tar Heels are preparing for the matchup just like they would for any other.
“They play with a lot of swag and they’re a pretty well-balanced team, so we aren’t taking them lightly at all,” Pontrello said. “It should be a good game.”
If all goes according to plan, Saturday’s game could mark the kickoff to a deep run by the Tar Heels.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll make a strong push for May and into the offseason," Pifani said. "And I’m really excited for it.”
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