DURHAM — Adversity finally caught up with the North Carolina women's field hockey team after it played its ninth ranked opponent in 14 matches.
Heading into Saturday's game against No. 12 Louisville, the No. 5 Tar Heels (12-3, 3-2 ACC) were tied for first place in the conference against the Cardinals. But a 3-2 loss on Saturday put the team in a tough position with only one game remaining in conference play.
UNC started off on the right foot as junior midfielder Malin Evert took a low and hard rip off a corner to take a 1-0 lead 23 minutes into the contest.
The Cardinals rebounded by scoring two goals in a row, both off corners, to take a 2-1 lead just after halftime.
The Tar Heels responded well as sophomore midfielder Feline Guenther equalized in the 49th minute. But it was short lived; Louisville scored two and a half minutes later.
“They scored, and I think that was a period of time where it was natural for a team to get deflated,” head coach Karen Shelton said.
Shelton pulled goalie Amanda Hendry with eight minutes left in regulation and replaced her with another offensive player. The team had a few chances to score again, but was never able to find the back of the goal to force overtime.
North Carolina has played zero true "home" games this season, as its normal home field is under construction. Instead, UNC holds each and every home game eight miles from campus at Duke's Jack Katz Stadium.
“I think we're handling it very well," Evert said. "Even though we have to go here twice a week to practice and the bus ride is kind of annoying ... we sing a lot and play games. It was a team bonding experience for sure."
Junior midfielder Ashley Hoffman agreed and isn't using the travel and new location as an excuse.
“Honestly, I think the whole team is pretty positive about it,” she said. “I don’t feel a difference, and if anything, it has made us mentally stronger. So I don’t think the field has anything to do with it.”
Even though the players are adamant the adversity hasn’t impacted their performance, they're playing on their rival’s turf in an unfamiliar site and have to practice at the field twice a week during the season, adding at least an hour of unnecessary travel per practice and game. And in high-level collegiate sports, every little advantage or disadvantage can make a difference, especially in a game like Saturday's that was won by just one goal.
Moreover, the Cardinals were UNC’s ninth-ranked opponent on the season. It helps to play the best teams in the country, as it builds experience for the ACC and NCAA tournaments, but it's mentally draining having to prepare and focus for a top program each week. The tough schedule has caught up with UNC and resulted in a few blemishes on the record, like Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the Cardinals.
All in all, the diversity from never being at home and playing elite opponents will probably help the team win close games late in the season and deal with traveling to unfamiliar environments during tournament play.
If the aforementioned ideas are fact, the tough losses will cultivate great success as fall turns to winter and the Tar Heels compete for another ACC title and national championship.
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