The message that echoed in the Tar Heel locker room was ostensibly simple.
At the national championship game last November, the North Carolina field hockey team walked off the turf at halftime down 2-0 to Delaware, a team that had won 18 games in a row and was fresh off its fourth consecutive conference tournament title.
But this wasn’t the time to point fingers or dish out responsibility for missed opportunities.
“Our whole halftime speech was, 'You've got to believe,’” said Emma Bozek, a redshirt senior on that team. “’We have to know we can do this.'”
And why should their faith have wavered? Mending two-goal deficits was hardly unprecedented for these Tar Heels, who had defeated Louisville just two weeks earlier after entering the locker room in the same hole. In fact, they’d proved their resiliency all year, competing and arriving on the same stage they left a year ago — heartbroken, losing to Syracuse in the NCAA title game in 2015.
North Carolina seized the attacking role in the second half of the game against the Blue Hens, fighting back to tie the scoreboard at two apiece. But when all was said and done, the Tar Heels fell one goal short, earning their second consecutive runner-up finish.
Last year’s finals marked the end of six total Tar Heel careers. The 2016 graduating class of this team — which included North Carolina’s leading scorer and starting goalkeeper —finished each year at least making it to the Final Four.
Despite several key departures, North Carolina will open this season as the preseason No. 1 team. According to a statement on GoHeels.com, head coach Karen Shelton calls the ranking an “overestimation” of how prepared her team is.
“This year will be somewhat of a rebuilding for us,” Shelton said. “On the upside, we have a lot of potential and a lot of room for rapid growth, so we’re looking forward to taking it one day at a time, one game at a time and trying to get better and reach our potential by the end of the season.”
There are a few key players returning in 2017. Gab Major, who was the team’s leading scorer in 2015 and played a critical part of the Tar Heels’ offensive attack in 2016, is returning as the lone senior on this young team. Alongside her is junior standout Ashley Hoffman, who started all 26 games last season manning the middle of the field as well as the back line.
Right now, North Carolina lists nine first-years or redshirt first-years on the 24-player roster — nine people who haven’t experienced back-to-back national championship losses.
Even though most players on this 2017 Tar Heel team would prefer to forget the final games of the past two seasons, maybe the most important lesson this 2017 team could rally around was the one the team communicated in the locker room last November.
They’d have to believe they can come back. Again.
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