Megan Ward had arguably the best outing of her career in Sunday's NCAA Tournament final for the North Carolina women's lacrosse team. But heading into the game, it was still up in the air if the senior goalie would start in the cage for the Tar Heels.
Heck, she didn't even think she was getting the nod.
Two days earlier, Ward was pulled with 21:47 remaining in the first half of UNC's semifinal win over Penn State. After the Tar Heels took a 3-0 lead earlier in the half, the senior gave up five goals in a three minute span. Junior Caylee Waters came on in relief, and made eight saves to lead North Carolina to a 12-11 win over the Nittany Lions.
But ahead of Sunday's game, Coach Jenny Levy and assistant coach Phil Barnes elected to go back to Ward. And it was just what she needed to hear.
"I was a little bit surprised after the Penn State performance," Ward said. "But Phil said that he had so much belief in me and that helped me play well."
With redemption on the line and the shot of confidence from her coaches, Ward piled up a career-high 14 saves in the Tar Heels' 13-7 win over the Terrapins.
Coming into the game, Maryland held the nation's top-scoring offense, averaging just over 15 goals per game in 2016. But no one was prepared for how strong Ward was between the pipes Sunday, including two-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings.
"Megan Ward played unbelievable," she said. "She had 14 saves today, and when you play against a goalie who is hot, you have to move her and we didn’t. I think that was our chance and we kind of missed it."
North Carolina's thumping of Maryland in the title game was unexpected, as was Ward's inspired play, but its not like she hasn't come up big in similar situations before.
As a first-year in 2013, Ward started for the Tar Heels when they took on Maryland in the national championship game. She came up with six saves that day, including three in the overtime period, in UNC's 13-12 win.
But over the last three seasons, Ward has had to share time in the cage with junior Caylee Waters. Her starts dwindled, as did the spotlight, but she took it in stride. Even when she was pulled from games — including two during the 2016 NCAA Tournament — she remained supportive on the sidelines.
“Credit my players for just being awesome teammates and understanding that and continuing to show up everyday and work hard ...” Levy said at a practice a few weeks ago. “No one cares about their stats and individual awards. We are ultimately working as a team to get to the next step.”
Sunday's game couldn't have played out better for Ward. After going from a championship-winning goalie to a part-time starter, the ability to come back from it all and bookend her career with another national championship was a fitting end to her time as a Tar Heel.
Not many people expected it. Heck, neither did she, but that just made it all the more rewarding when she led North Carolina to its second-ever NCAA title win.
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