Piled high, they covered every inch of counter space in North Carolina men’s lacrosse head coach Joe Breschi’s kitchen. There were dozens of sets of plates, cups and utensils. It was the only evidence remaining from a joyful dinner shared among family.
This was a standard scene on Wednesday nights, when Breschi hosted his team during their 2016 NCAA Tournament run. It was a chance for the team to spend time together with Breschi’s family and four labradors. Away from the stress of the season, they could relax.
But on this night, that wasn’t quite the case. Breschi, chipping away at the pile of plates, looked up to find all his players missing.
“I was like, ‘Where’d everybody go?’” he said.
Out in his backyard, the entire team was surrounding Breschi’s then 10-year-old daughter Lucy, who was giving a fiery pep talk.
“And then she went down and broke the huddle, ‘Family,’” said Breschi, whose team begins its title defense Saturday against the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “And to me, that was like — that’s what it’s all about.”
On the morning of May 22 — when North Carolina played Notre Dame in the Elite Eight — the team gathered for breakfast. In a few hours, this group would step onto the field in Columbus, Ohio, with Lucy’s words still ringing in their ears. There was something else stuck in their minds, though: Breschi’s own past in Columbus.
Before coming to UNC, Breschi coached at Ohio State for 11 years. But he forged a more ominous bond with the community in 2004, when his 3-year-old son, Michael, died in a traffic accident.
"(Former captain Patrick) Kelly spoke at the breakfast before the game and said, ‘We are always better when we play for something bigger than ourselves,’” goalkeeper Brian Balkam said. “‘So let’s play this game for Michael.’”
It was unanimous. The players scribbled “MB” on their helmets and took to the field, beating the Fighting Irish by four goals to reach the Final Four in Philadelphia.
North Carolina was playing for Breschi and his family, reciprocating the message that the coach injects into every aspect of his program.
“He lives the life he tries to coach his players,” athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. “Some people want to coach beyond what they are willing to do themselves, but not coach Breschi.”
Riding an emotional high, the Tar Heels triumphed with an 18-13 win over Loyola in the national semifinal. Two days later, North Carolina jumped out to a 4-0 lead over top-seeded Maryland.
The Terrapins crawled back, though, cutting UNC’s lead to 6-5 late in the first quarter to test the Tar Heels’ resolve. But North Carolina didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
The day before in nearby Chester, Pa., the women’s lacrosse team seized a 6-1 lead over an undefeated Maryland team en route to a 13-7 win, claiming their second national title in four years under head coach Jenny Levy.
“Everyone was so happy for them once they won,” Balkam said. “But it was also like, ‘Well, they won — now we’ve got to win. Now it’s our turn.’”
The Terrapins scored the final three goals of the second quarter, to take an 8-7 lead over the men’s team heading into halftime. As Breschi jogged off the field, he called in a favor from a team that knew what the Tar Heels faced.
At halftime, the 1991 UNC men’s lacrosse championship team was honored on the field. After, the former players made a tunnel for the Tar Heels to run through, as they returned to the field.
“I don’t even know if they were supposed to do that,” Balkam said. “But they did it because they were there with us, saying, ‘Hey, we did this, you guys can do this.’”
“I know that fired every last one of us up.”
North Carolina kept battling once the second half began. The game was tied, 10-10, at the end of the third quarter, and a wild fourth period wasn’t enough to crown a champion.
So the game went to sudden-death overtime, tied at 13.
With 3:26 left, Maryland had a man-up advantage as Connor Kelly, who had already scored four times, unleashed a shot at UNC’s goal. He had a clean look at the cage — or so he thought.
But North Carolina defenseman Zach Powers launched himself, Superman-style, in front of the shot.
His dive altered the angle, and Balkam made the stop to save the championship dream.
“I know for a fact that anyone else on our team would have done the exact same thing for the brothers, for the coaches, for the fans, for the alumni,” Powers said. “I just happened to be the one to do so.”
Chris Cloutier did the rest.
With 1:39 left in the overtime period, his golden goal — which set the record for goals in a single tournament (19) — gave the team a 14-13 victory. The Tar Heels became the first unseeded team in NCAA history to win the national championship, the program’s first in 25 years.
“Once (Cloutier) drained it, I was maybe the first or second guy to him, to hug him and tackle him,” Powers said. “And then at that point, we were on a different planet.”
After the initial burst of euphoria, the team made its way to where the women’s team sat in the UNC section of the stadium, uniting the two championship trophies. It was an iconic image of North Carolina planting its flag atop the lacrosse world.
“I looked around the stands, and there were several alumni shedding a tear or two,” said Graham Harden, who was a senior captain on the ‘91 team.
The only player missing from the 1991 group was Stephen Muir, who died in 2015 from lung cancer. He was loved by his teammates and greatly missed throughout the weekend, but his spirit was felt throughout.
“We scored the game-winning goal in the 32nd minute of the second half — two minutes into overtime — with 32 seconds off the Maryland penalty on our 32nd shot of the game,” Breschi said.
Muir wore No. 32.
“It sort of speaks for itself...” Harden said. “It’s amazing how certain things come together, and how they play out.”
After the game, the national champions gathered around their trophy, put their thumbs up and smiled. Some still had tears on their cheeks, eye black running down their faces.
The Tar Heels had done the impossible by following the lead of their friends on the women’s team, getting an assist from the ‘91 team and giving everything they had — as Powers did when he laid out to stop Maryland’s wide-open shot. That’s where the smiles came from.
But the team found the strength to do it all by playing for Michael Breschi.
“Their thing was, right before sleep, Michael would always be like, ‘Thumbs up, Dad,’ and Coach would always give Michael a thumbs up,” Powers said. “It was their way of saying, ‘Hey, I love ya. I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
That’s where the tears came from. The players knew they had triumphed for something bigger than themselves.
“If you see the championship photo from after us celebrating, getting the trophy, etc., you can see probably 80 percent of the guys at least have a thumbs up in that photo,” Powers said. “Not ‘No. 1.’ We all have our thumbs up because we knew what we were playing for — and that was Michael.”