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'Tough as nails': Austin Pifani leads UNC men's lacrosse with grit and passion

Austin Pifani is a senior defender for the North Carolina men's lacrosse team. The two-time captain helped lead the turnaround last year that ended with the Tar Heels' first national title since 1991.

Austin Pifani is a senior defender for the North Carolina men's lacrosse team. The two-time captain helped lead the turnaround last year that ended with the Tar Heels' first national title since 1991.

It had been a bad loss — an upset loss — for North Carolina. A thorough defeat on March 12, 2016, against a Massachusetts team the Tar Heels should have easily outmatched. It led to a scorching postgame lecture from the coaching staff.

So up came Austin.

He sat there, overcome with emotion to the point that he couldn’t speak. Instead, he just kept pointing to the “Carolina Lacrosse” logo on his shirt, tapping the embroidery right above his heart.

“I know for me that turned me to tears,” said goalkeeper Brian Balkam, then a redshirt sophomore. “For a lot of guys, that did because you see just how much he cares. Right there, right from that UMass game, we all probably would agree that is what turned it around.”

What “it” was at that moment was a sinking ship, a potent team off to a feeble 3-3 start. What “it” would become was a team on a title run for the ages, capturing UNC’s first championship since 1991.

Austin’s emotion in that moment was enough to drive his team to a national championship. But if you ask the senior, it wasn’t even the most emotion he had felt sitting with his team after a game.

Less than a year before, one of North Carolina’s most talent-rich teams ever was dismembered by Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals. It was also Pifani’s birthday.

“It was probably one of the most devastating things in my life,” Austin said. “Just to see my brothers cry their eyes out.”

The tough kid from Philly is the go-to guy, the one his teammates look to in times of trouble.

“He wants to give everything he’s got for the guys on his team,” Balkam said. “No matter what it is, no matter what it takes.”

Don’t confuse Austin’s emotion for weakness, though. The three-time All-American defender is from Roslyn, Pa. — a suburb of Philadelphia that required grit and strength from Pifani as he grew up.

“He is a hard worker, blue-collar type of guy from a blue-collar family,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “Tough as nails.”

His parents, Joe and Annette, taught him the fundamentals of making things happen for himself. All he knows is hard work.

That mentality, coupled with his aggressive approach, stems largely from his dad.

“My dad drives tractor trailers for a living and does concrete work and stuff like that,” Austin said. “We call him ‘Bad Dog.’”

“Bad Dog is this real tough, blue-collar Philly guy,” Balkam said. “Seen it all, done it all.”

Austin needed that side. Going to Abington Senior High School, unbreakable integrity was his saving grace.

“You can get a great education,” Austin said. “But you can also get hooked with the wrong people and do the wrong thing, and it can totally alter your future. I’ve had friends go down the wrong route — and even lose their life.”

Next to his dad’s toughness, his mom’s gentle nature serves as the perfect complement.

“And that’s kind of Austin,” Balkam said. “He’s the perfect mix of the two of them. He’s got the badass ‘I’ll sock you in the face’ of his dad and he’s got the loving, caring side of his mom.”

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The toughness and passion made Austin a show-stopping athlete, but his parents wanted more than that from him. They had a goal for him to become the first person from their family to graduate college.

And as good as UNC’s lacrosse team was, the academics were just as strong. His dad recalled Austin’s first call home.

“He said, ‘Dad, Abington School did not have me prepared for college at all.’”

Yet by the end of his first semester, Austin was proud to call home to tell his parents about his GPA. When he told his dad the number, he didn’t get the reaction he was expecting.

“Bad Dog is like, ‘What’s that?’” fellow senior captain Stephen Kelly recounted. “‘What the hell does that mean? Is that good?’”

Learning the ins and outs of GPAs came with the new territory.

“This is new for all of them,” Kelly said. “Like I said, he’s the first kid from his family to go to college. That’s a big deal. And he’s doing really well with it.”

Being a first-generation college student — while balancing his starting position on one of the nation’s perennial contenders — is “a big deal,” as Kelly said.

But Austin wanted more.

“His junior year, he’s Dean’s List,” redshirt junior defender Ryan Macri said. “Everyone sort of looks at each other and is like, ‘Austin got on the Dean’s List?’ He was one of those guys that just put in the work. It was nothing that was given to him.”

That combination of passion, toughness and intellect doesn’t go unnoticed by anyone around Austin. You can hear the admiration every time one of his teammates emphasizes how rare it is to be a two-time captain for North Carolina.

“That’s honestly the biggest honor of my life,” Austin said.

From the day he stepped on campus, Austin’s bold leadership struck his teammates. In an early practice, Austin barked commands at a senior captain for not sliding in the right direction.

“At that moment, everyone looked at each other and realized this kid is not messing around,” Macri said. “He didn’t care he was a freshman. He thought he was a senior from the first moment he stepped on the field, which is what we needed and what really changed the culture of the program.”

An effective leader has to command the respect of his teammates, and respect is something Austin earns from everyone he meets.

“The kid has got a huge heart, man,” Joe Pifani said. “He’s got that never-quit attitude. All of his teammates know it; I know it.”

With a 5-5 record this season — and No. 12 Virginia awaiting on Sunday — expectations that the defending champions can even make it back to the NCAA tournament have slipped. The chance of this team not living up to its potential is weighing on Austin.

“He texted me and said ‘Mom, I don’t know what I can do,’” Annette Pifani said.

But beating the expectations has always been Austin’s specialty. He doesn’t care where he starts or what the odds are. He’s headed for the top.

“I’m on a mission to win championships ...” Austin said. “If you want something enough, it doesn’t matter what people think about you.”