RALEIGH — Senior midfielder Stephen Kelly knew it was going to be a big day for the No. 1 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team from the first whistle.
Kelly won the face-off, grabbed the ground ball from behind him, ran toward the UMBC net and saw no one had slid over to cover him. So he fired a shot from the left side.
The ball flew past the goalie — 1-0 Tar Heels, 15 seconds into the game.
“It was a good way to start the year,” Kelly said with a smile.
Kelly’s opening goal and outstanding performance in the faceoff game set the tone for UNC, as the defending national champions scored the first eight goals of the game en route to a 17-6 victory at Cardinal Gibbons High School. The game was scheduled to be at Fetzer Field, but Chapel Hill's water crisis moved it to Raleigh.
Kelly won 75 percent of his faceoffs in the first quarter, giving UNC numerous chances with the ball, which the Tar Heels executed. The team scored 10 goals in the opening frame.
“He’s the reason,” head coach Joe Breschi said of Kelly, on why UNC got off to a red-hot start. “If you don’t have the ball, you can’t score.”
Kelly said a great offseason made him ready to perform from the first bit of action in the young season.
“I’ve been feeling confident and having good scrimmages,” Kelly said. “I think that’s a big key with faceoffs is confidence, so hopefully I can keep that rolling a little bit.”
Faceoffs can only get you so far, though. UNC also shot well down the stretch. UMBC‘s defense did not slide enough to cover up gaps that opened, allowing for several unassisted shots for the Tar Heels.
The faceoff success also meant the Tar Heels limited UMBC to only two true attacks in the quarter, one of which ended before the Retrievers could get off a shot as time expired.
UMBC recovered defensively in the second quarter, doing a better job of forcing tough shots, but couldn’t get anything going offensively on their own end. UNC’s two goals in the period gave them an 11-goal advantage going into halftime, which ended up sticking as Breschi worked in a lot of his reserve players and underclassmen in the second half.
“Our focus at halftime was try to get ourselves better,” Breschi said
Breschi's talk led to UNC sharing the ball more and slowing down the pace of the game in the second half, as the team failed to capture the lightning of the first quarter.
That explosive start starred a diverse cast of returners and newcomers. Sophomore Timmy Kelly led the way with a hat trick in the first quarter, while first-year Justin Anderson scored in the first, second and third quarter to net a hat trick in his collegiate debut.
“It’s come down to the trust that the players have given me,” Anderson said. “I feel very comfortable on the field with all of them.”
That chemistry between newcomers and veterans, which co-captain Stephen Kelly knows the Tar Heels can build on, will be key for the Tar Heels as the season progresses to tougher opponents down the line.
“We started out on fire,” he said. “And we’ve got to break down the film and see how we can roll that through four quarters.”
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