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Tuesday March 28th

Shannon Johnson set to lead UNC field hockey in Final Four

<p>Shannon Johnson (31) will be the new goalie for the remaining games in the NCAA field hockey tournament.&nbsp;</p>
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Shannon Johnson (31) will be the new goalie for the remaining games in the NCAA field hockey tournament. 

After a pair of shutouts over Stanford and Maryland last weekend, Johnson will again be in the cage for the Tar Heels as they travel to Norfolk, Virginia, for their eighth straight Final Four.

The senior will have her work cut out for her, however, when North Carolina takes on Connecticut — which leads the country in average goals per game — in the national semifinal at 2 p.m. on Friday.

“Shannon brings a confidence level, and some experience,” Head Coach Karen Shelton said. “She’s been in a Final Four before, and we came close to winning it all. We’re going with our senior.”

Halpin — a talented redshirt first-year — burst onto the scene with a pair of huge performances against then-No. 1 Syracuse and No. 2 Duke in September. Her skill defending corners was one of the main reasons she earned time in the cage.

The Tar Heels knew going into last weekend that converting corners was one of Maryland’s strengths. Anchored by graduate defender Grace Balsdon, the Terrapins’ corner attack was a lethal scoring weapon.

In the 48th minute of Sunday’s game, the Terrapins got a chance to unleash it.

Johnson stood on her line. The senior observed how Maryland was set up and called out defensive shifts accordingly.

Everyone knew who the pass was aimed for. Balsdon saw the ball rolling her way and unleashed the signature drag flick she had numerous times before — scooping the ball toward the goal and directing it for the upper corner. The ball closed in on its target.

Just before it passed the line, North Carolina’s senior goalie leapt, intent on staying between the ball and her cage.

The ball fell to the turf outside the cage. A save.

The play was crucial to the Tar Heels’ success Sunday. That corner came with UNC up 2-0. A goal there would have changed the complexion of the game, but Johnson’s save kept North Carolina in control.

And it also secured her spot in goal for this weekend.

“She’s had such a great attitude all year.” Shelton said. “She knew that she could do this, and I think she’s just thrilled to have the opportunity.”

A pair of Tar Heel senior defenders, Kristy Bernatchez and Julia Young, are both used to having Johnson in the net in critical moments.

“She’s kinda like a micro-manager, so she makes sure everyone’s doing their job,” Bernatchez said. “Not only the defense, but the forwards and everyone else.”

With Johnson in the back, the Tar Heel defense was a force to be reckoned with last weekend. Her communication with the UNC back line and composure in high-pressure situations were key to the team’s unwavering defensive effort.

“When I’m not touching the ball, (communicating) is what I’m doing ...” Johnson said. “That also helps me stay focused ... just talking and making sure I’m always staying engaged and setting up where the defensive is supposed to be.”

Johnson is one of six seniors for North Carolina that will be looking to get a bad taste out of their mouth. The group has already been a part of three Final Four teams, but each time, the Tar Heels have come up empty on the final weekend of the season.

“Us seniors have gone in and lost three times,” Bernatchez said. “We don’t have anything to lose. We have this refuse to lose mentality.”



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