Chris Cloutier lay in bed and contemplated what loomed ahead of him.
One thing was certain. The next afternoon, May 28, 2016, he and his teammates on the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team would compete for a spot in the national championship game.
Once the referee blew the whistle at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, all of Cloutier’s thoughts would disappear, replaced by the struggle of competition. The underdog Tar Heels had limped to this point after an 8-6 regular season and close victories in their first two tournament games. And Cloutier was an integral reason why.
He finally reached a conclusion.
“I could never get another opportunity to play in this atmosphere again,” he thought to himself. “I’m just going to go out and have fun, play loose and not worry about if I get pulled or not.”
So Cloutier, a then-sophomore, took his own advice. He tied an NCAA Tournament record with nine goals, as unseeded UNC beat Loyola Maryland and advanced to the title game. Against No. 1 Maryland on the following Monday, Cloutier’s heroics gave UNC its first national title since 1991 and, in the process, created a legend.
That legend has only grown with the test of time. But before going any further, it’s important to learn how the story of Cloutier — now in his senior year — began.
Lauren Cloutier dropped her 3-year-old son off at his babysitter’s house.
That day, his babysitter’s son, Andrew, gave Chris a lacrosse stick. Andrew was 12 years old, and his stick was far too big for Chris, but when Chris held it in his hands, he was immediately hooked. Cloutier started playing in lacrosse leagues when he was four.
“Lacrosse was always his passion,” Lauren said. “I would say if there was a choice for him, he was playing lacrosse.”
As he grew older, he faced an issue. His Catholic high school in Kitchener, Ontario, did not have a lacrosse team.
“I never gave any thought to postsecondary even,” Chris said. “I thought maybe I would just get a job right out of high school or something, and just keep playing lacrosse.”
Chris started working manual labor jobs as a teenager. It started with construction work, but soon he transitioned to steel work and finally working as a millwright — work he will continue this summer when he returns to Kitchener.
With the help of Peter Merrill, the founder of The Hill Academy, Chris was able to get admitted to the powerhouse lacrosse high school when he was a senior.
“Once I went to The Hill, my eyes were open,” he said. “Like, ‘Okay, now there’s something better for me, and I can make my future life better if I just work harder and grind right now.’”
He quickly moved up the ladder, but it wasn’t until the Great Lakes Lacrosse Invitational later in his senior year that UNC recruited him. He learned before one of the games that a scout for the Tar Heels was there to watch him.
He scored nine goals in the game while playing a variety of positions. UNC wooed the teenager and pried him away from Canada to come to Chapel Hill, beating out Marquette in the process, who had first recruited him.
“I came to visit here, met all the coaches, saw the campus," he said, "and it was like, ‘I can’t not go here.’”
Cloutier was hundreds of miles away from home in an unknown place. But slowly, the fear dissipated.
“I didn’t get much playing time freshman year, but I was out there playing with these guys at this level and I just realized that this is me,” Cloutier said. “This is where I want to be.”
It also helped that his roommate soon became his best friend. William McBride, also a first-year on the team, had two classes with Cloutier — drama and geology. With so much time spent together, a lasting bond quickly formed.
“Me and Willie talk about everything together,” Cloutier said. “Like whenever I have an issue with school or anything I know I can talk to him and it’s the same way vice versa.”
The bond has grown each year, with McBride visiting Cloutier in Kitchener for five days last summer. The two even plan to open up a poutinerie in California. Poutine is a popular Canadian dish — french fries with cheese curds and brown gravy.
“Ever since freshman year, we’re talking about opening up a poutinerie in California,” McBride said. “Call it the poutinerie, or Cloutinerie.”
The name is derived from Cloutier’s last name, which has been butchered since he arrived on campus. It’s pronounced CLOO-CHAY, but almost everyone uses CLOO-TEE-AY.
“It’s to the point where I don’t even like telling people anymore,” Cloutier said with a smile. “It’s just like, ‘You guys can call me whatever you want.’”
After his performance against Loyola, it should have taken no one by surprise what happened against Maryland on Monday, May 30. That is, not anything more surprising than the Tar Heels’ mere presence in the game itself.
The teams were deadlocked at 13-13 heading into overtime. Cloutier already had four goals, the last of which set a new NCAA record for most goals scored in a tournament (18).
“The ball needed to be in Chris’ hands ...” McBride said. “There was never a feeling that we weren’t going to do it.”
With 1:39 left, and both his parents and his younger sister in attendance, Cloutier cocked back and fired the ball from the top right arc. It was a low strike that found the back left corner of the net.
It was over. Cloutier’s goal had given the program its fifth national championship Head coach Joe Breschi’s decision to move Cloutier to starting at attack before the season started had paid dividends.
Five of Cloutier’s childhood friends were there, too, having driven 504 miles through the night from Kitchener to surprise him. After the goal, Cloutier ran to the stands to embrace his family and friends.
“I’ve always dreamt of having something like that,” Cloutier said, “and then when it happened, it was so surreal I like blacked out after it happened. There’s no feeling like that in the world.”
Now, the page has turned to the final chapter for one of the most celebrated careers in program history.
Cloutier finished his junior campaign with 36 goals, but his team fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In his senior campaign, the attacker has scored 28 goals in just 11 games, giving him 108 for his career, tied for ninth best by a Tar Heel, with three regular season games left. His last game in Chapel Hill will be on April 21 against Notre Dame.
“The fact that he’s graduating and leaving a legacy with championships and hardware,” Breschi said. “It’s a pretty cool thing.”
With a 6-5 record, UNC will need a late-season push to give Cloutier one more chance to add to his name in the NCAA Tournament.
But regardless of how his senior season ends, Cloutier’s legacy — his sophomore national championship run, the current goal streak — will stay, forever etched in the program’s record books.