DURHAM — The North Carolina men’s lacrosse family wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet.
After winning the national championship in 2016, UNC had no plans of ruling out a repeat. More importantly, its players simply didn’t want to say goodbye to one another.
“This is the tightest team I’ve ever been a part of,” junior attackman Chris Cloutier said. “We all hang out, we are all brothers, and we had to do this or this would be it for us. And we wanted to keep this going.”
With a 14-10 statement win over Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon to win the ACC Championship, UNC left a shaky regular season behind and kept it going, collecting the program’s ninth conference championship in the process. The win all but guarantees a spot for the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament, extending those goodbyes and the team’s season a little longer.
“It’s kinda like last year, we are running off energy right now and we don’t think anyone can stop us,” senior attackman Luke Goldstock said.
That energy was evident right out of the gate Sunday, as North Carolina jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Cloutier’s first half hat trick also was a catalyst and a cause of the Tar Heels’ 7-3 lead heading into the half.
Notre Dame never led, but to its credit, never quit either. The Fighting Irish dominated the face-offs in the first period of play, winning 10 of 12, but couldn’t convert possessions into goals because of a cornucopia of silly turnovers.
They did win the third quarter, 3-1, and pulled within two goals of UNC heading into the fourth. The game then turned when North Carolina began to dominate the face-off, taking home 10 of 11 in the fourth quarter. Those extra possessions allowed UNC to come away with the win.
Sunday’s championship would be improbable in any other context. After all, UNC went 1-3 in conference regular season play and entered the four-team conference tournament as the fourth seed.
But the Tar Heels under head coach Joe Breschi just seem to play their best lacrosse with their backs up against a wall. North Carolina is comfortable with that pressure and can monetize it into success.
“It’s something that pushes us too,” Cloutier said. “It’s a lot easier to play when it’s your last game if you lose. It’s motivation — we want more time with our brothers. That’s what pushes us forward.”
The team was also hardened by the fires that come with a 6-7 finish to the regular season. The talent that won the conference championship Sunday was always there. At times, maybe the necessary focus and consistently wasn’t.
“Part of our early season woes was we were thinking about what we succeeded last year and how much that family celebrated through the fall and even into this season,” Breschi said. “We finally just had to have a nice sit down after the Maryland game and say look, ‘This is a new season with the ACC. And we have to really step up and commit ourselves to the family. And to greatness.’”
“Although we were close and fell short a couple times, we kept getting better and I think we are peaking at the right time.”
The Tar Heels are absolutely peaking at the right time, winning the team’s first conference title since 2013 and setting themselves up for another potentially magical NCAA postseason run.
After the win, the North Carolina lacrosse players and families took turns taking pictures with their trophy and a sign sporting a UNC logo with the words “2017 Men’s Lacrosse ACC Champions.” The players lingered, taking their time before heading back for more celebrations in the locker room.
It was as if the team wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to its championship moment, either.
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