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Monday September 20th

UNC men's lacrosse playing for Joe Breschi and his son the rest of the way

Coach Joe Breschi (center) speaks to the media along with Austin Pifani (left) and Jake Matthai (right) ahead of the Men's Lacrosse trip to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia this weekend.
Buy Photos Coach Joe Breschi (center) speaks to the media along with Austin Pifani (left) and Jake Matthai (right) ahead of the Men's Lacrosse trip to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia this weekend.

When the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team upset Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on May 14, it booked a trip to Columbus, Ohio for the national quarterfinal. It was a place Breschi knew all too well.

Breschi served as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes for 11 years before taking the same position at UNC in 2008. For him, Columbus was the place where he got his start as a head coach, but it was also the home of a tragic memory.

On March 1, 2004, Breschi’s son Michael was killed after being struck by an SUV in the parking lot of his preschool. He was three years old.

Michael was buried just 20 minutes from Ohio State’s campus, allowing Breschi to visit the cemetery after UNC’s practice Saturday. It had already been an emotional weekend for the coach of 26 years — he was moved to tears in every team meeting ahead of the Tar Heels’ Sunday matchup with Notre Dame — so when game day finally rolled around, Breschi wanted to change the mood.

“As they were coming into the breakfast I was high-fiving, chest-bumping, getting them all fired up because I didn’t want any more tears,” he said.

But it didn’t last for long. As the team sat down to eat, Patrick Kelly — a senior attacker and co-captain — addressed his teammates.

“Patrick said, ‘You know, none of us in this room would be here if it wasn’t for coach and for bringing us here to North Carolina,’” Breschi said. “‘This is a special place for him and his family ... let’s dedicate (the game) to Michael and coach’s family.’”

After Breschi heard Kelly’s words, he couldn’t help but well up once more. A few hours later he found himself crying again, only this time the tears were mostly from joy. The Tar Heels dominated the Fighting Irish, earning a 13-9 win and advancing to the program’s first Final Four since 1993.

North Carolina just seemed to play at a different level Sunday against Notre Dame, and it wasn’t a surprise after the events of the morning. The team knew it not only had win for themselves, but for their coach — and for Michael.

“We look at coach as a father-figure, and he absolutely raised this team up with the power of his words and the power of his son’s memory,” senior midfielder Jake Matthai said. “We did it for him and we did it for his son.”

It has been nothing short of an emotional season for Breschi and this North Carolina team. UNC started the season with a 3-3 record and was struggling to find an identity, especially on offense.

After losing to Massachusetts on March 12, the players and coaches gathered in one of their hotel rooms for a meeting. It was time for the Tar Heels to figure out who they wanted to be.

“We let everything out on the table. There was no holding back and there was tears shed in that ...” junior Austin Pifani said. “I think that loss in particular ... it was a special moment. It definitely didn’t feel good, but having those moments happen during the season can help bring you together.”

After the meeting, North Carolina went 5-3 the rest of the regular season. In the NCAA Tournament, they upset two national seeds and have moved in to a place where no UNC men’s lacrosse team has in the past 23 years.

Prior to Sunday’s victory, Breschi was 0-4 in NCAA quarterfinals as the Tar Heels’ head coach. The win over Notre Dame not only brought him to tears, but also gave him a sense of relief.

“The weight is lifted off the program’s shoulders and we’re just along for the ride,” he said.

But the ride isn’t over yet. North Carolina plays Loyola (Md.) in the national semifinal at noon Saturday. If the team beats the Greyhounds, it will be in a position to take home its first national title since 1991.

And like he has all season long, Breschi won’t be alone. The ‘91 team will be there, as will the UNC women’s lacrosse team and the 46 players he brought with him. They’ll be there for him — and for Michael.



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