You could have excused head coach Karen Shelton’s North Carolina field hockey team for having a down year.
UNC had made it to the Final Four in each of the past eight seasons, but after losing six seniors to graduation from a 2016 team that made it to the national championship game, Shelton had what she called a “rebuilding scenario” on her hands.
On Friday, that team headed to penalty strokes after tying undefeated No. 1 seed UConn, 1-1, through two overtime periods. The winner would advance to the national title game.
The Tar Heels lost, but few would blame Shelton for any diminished expectations.
“I didn't think we'd ever get that far,” Shelton said of her team making it to penalty strokes.
But Shelton didn't mean to imply that she was surprised the Tar Heels had survived so long in a game they were expected to lose. Actually, quite the opposite.
“I thought we'd win it in overtime.”
A few razor-thin moments that went in favor of UConn goalie Nina Klein were the difference. The Huskies advanced past the Tar Heels 3-0 in penalty strokes for a spot in the title game, which they ultimately won on Sunday. Klein had a season-high 13 saves on Friday, and the Huskies needed every single one of them.
“If she hadn't played quite so well, we would've been playing for a championship and could've won it,” Shelton said. “But we didn't. And now we look to the future, as we do. And our future is really bright.”
North Carolina loses just one senior from this year’s squad, forward Gab Major. A deep supporting cast behind her returns, junior Ashley Hoffman was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Junior Eva van’t Hoog, who had the game-tying goal in the second half of Friday’s game, had the third-most points on the team this season, behind Hoffman and Major. Shelton gave credit beyond the stars, too.
“It was the rest of the team that made the difference,” she said. “It's what made this year so special, is that every player on our team played a role. Even the ones who didn't play, they practiced and competed every day to make our starters better.”
Making it to the Final Four isn’t automatic, though the Tar Heels’ record over the past decade may indicate otherwise. Shelton has used the accomplishment as the objective of every season, however.
“And once you get there you can celebrate your season, and then you have a chance to win."
The Tar Heels haven't capitalized on that chance since their last title in 2009. Shelton has led Tar Heel teams to titles on six occasions over her 37 years as head coach, but UNC hasn't won any of the five title games it has been to in the last eight seasons. Shelton feels confident that with the set of returners she has, the drought may be over soon.
"Knowing that we have all these kids returning is amazing for us because we are going to have some incoming kids that will add," Shelton said. "So next year we are going to have depth and we are going to have optimism and we are going to have energy."
There are high hopes for the next year's team, which returns all but one player. For now, the coach isn’t worried about outside hype surrounding the team. After this season, she knows that expectations don't matter so much.
"The buzz is that we are going to work our asses off every day, to be so good, as good as we can possibly be,” Shelton said. “That's going to be the buzz.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.