At the end of last season, Joe Breschi and the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team faced uncharted territory. For the first time in his 10 seasons as head coach, Breschi’s squad failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, finishing the season with a 7-7 mark.
Yet expectations going into this season are high. UNC currently ranks No. 15 in the Inside Lacrosse preseason rankings. The Tar Heels open the season at Mercer on Saturday.
Gone is Chris Cloutier, the star of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, one of 12 seniors on last year’s team. However, the Tar Heels bring back senior attackman Timmy Kelly, junior midfielder Justin Anderson and senior Jack Rowlett, who was named an Inside Lacrosse Preseason third-team All-America selection as a long-stick defensive midfielder.
Now, the Tar Heels must balance veteran leadership with an influx of young talent (14 first-years) as they embark on a campaign that includes dates with seven teams that made the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
“I think we have really, really good potential with this group if we stay healthy and we play to our ability,” Breschi said. “I don’t think you put too much emphasis on anything outside of getting better each week and preparing for that next opponent. Everybody we play on the schedule is talented.”
Kelly leads an attack that lost more than 20 percent of last year's scoring with Cloutier’s departure.
“Some of the things that Chris Cloutier brought to the table — his scoring ability is tremendous, so I think it’s going to be by committee,” Breschi said.
That committee includes Kelly, who scored 21 goals in 2018, as well as first-year attackmen Nicky Solomon, Jacob Kelly and Brian Cameron, players who have impressed Breschi thus far. Breschi also expects first-year Zachary Tucci to be a bright spot once he returns from injury.
For the Tar Heels to be successful on the attacking side of the ball, their coach wants them to be moving quickly and aggressively.
“I think if we are at our best, we’re sharing the ball, we’re playing fast, we’re pushing tempo offensively,” Breschi said.
Perhaps no player does a better job of sharing the ball than senior attackman Andy Matthews, the player Breschi said was the team’s quarterback the last two years. Matthews posted 53 assists the last two seasons and should have no problem finding his open teammates again in 2019 as UNC attempts to fill its scoring production.
Anderson, who along with Timmy Kelly was named a team captain, leads a midfield unit that Breschi says is “three midlines deep.” Anderson tallied 10 goals and nine assists for the Tar Heels last season.
Anderson will be joined by juniors William Perry and Tanner Cook, who combined for 39 goals in 2018 and added 12 assists.
Breschi expects Timmy Kelly and Alex Trippi to help out some in the midfield this season, as well as Solomon, Jacob Kelly and Cameron.
“I really like the way we’ve started off the fall, the exhibitions,” Breschi said. “We played 40 guys in each of the exhibition games, so we’re kind of narrowed down as we start the season on who’s playing and what spots and so forth so we’ve given guys ample opportunity and gained a lot of experience.”
All four goalkeepers for UNC played in the team’s two scrimmages with each player getting a quarter of the time on the field. Last season, Alex Bassil and Jack Pezzulla split the majority of the time at the position. Pezzulla, who started seven games last season and posted a 5-2 record, stood out enough during his minutes in the scrimmages that he has earned the starting nod from Breschi.
“He came out of that and played very well and really did a nice job for us,” Breschi said. “We’re excited for him and look forward to watching him kind of lead that defensive end.”
One of those players Pezzulla was expected to lead is Will Bowen — the No. 1 defensive recruit in the nation who will redshirt this season after suffering a lower body injury in practice in mid-January.
Rowlett is one of four senior defenders who played against Notre Dame in UNC’s 2018 season finale. Rowlett played in all 14 games last season, and totaled seven points on the year. The other veteran defensemen include Michael Nathan, Jake Peden, Jack Halpert and Cam Macri, a junior.
With talent across the rosters and 13 seniors providing veteran leadership, UNC should return to the NCAA Tournament. But Breschi is not focused on the postseason. He’s focused on his team getting better every day.
“We don’t stress the future, we stress the present and working on ourselves to get ourselves to the best point we can as we grow through the course of the season.”
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