The North Carolina men’s lacrosse team took the field quite anonymously Saturday morning at Navy Field, where it eventually defeated High Point, 11-10, in a preseason scrimmage. Fog hung ominously over the playing field and just a few fans were in attendance to get their first look at the 2017 Tar Heels.
The scrimmage stood in stark contrast to the last time UNC played — way back on May 30 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. There, the Tar Heels won the national championship after a tournament run that was nothing short of amazing.
After being picked to finish last in the ACC by the media and starting off the season 3-3, North Carolina got hot at exactly the right time and rode the wave all the way to the Final Four. There, UNC beat Loyola (Md.), 18-13, and took home the program’s first national title in 25 years by beating Maryland, 14-13, in overtime of the tournament final.
Chris Cloutier, the hero from the NCAA Tournament last season, returns in 2017 along with most of the cast from that magical run. Cloutier began the scoring Saturday and would finish with two goals. But the close final score and the late push that the Panthers made in the fourth quarter serve as a reminder that last season is over and this new group has to start anew.
“It’s a completely different team, completely different chemistry, new leadership obviously,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “But it’s exciting. And I think they are playing with confidence, and that will continue to build and get better as we progress through the course of the year.”
Senior defender Austin Pifani admitted that things have changed now that the Tar Heels have a trophy to their name.
“Things have definitely changed, can’t lie there," he said. "I wouldn’t say it’s like a big change, it’s just that you have a target on your back ... The difference is people want to come after us.”
First-year Justin Anderson is one of the many newcomers North Carolina will lean on to help this new team conquer those challengers. He, along with first-year midfielders Tanner Cook and William Perry, and goalkeeper Jack Pezzulla, are the main names to watch.
But they also have to play up to the standards that the national champions set last year.
“I think that last year the team set a pretty high bar,” Anderson said. “And we are just trying to work off of that, trying to be successful, not think of ourselves that we are too good, but you know, every day get better and better.”
North Carolina isn’t quite where it wants to be yet in terms of quality of play, just like the beginning of every season. The difference, though, is that the Tar Heels learned how to make the climb, and what sacrifices it takes, a season ago. More consistent growth is the goal for this year, along with not worrying about the added pressure that the championship win brought.
“We are not defending anything, we already have it,” Breschi said. “No one’s going to take it from us, right?
“So I talked to the guys about, there is no pressure on you now. You are not trying to get to the Final Four, you are not trying to win a national championship, you are just trying to get better each week.”
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