Vengeance comes early for head coach Jenny Levy's North Carolina women's lacrosse team.
For the fifth year in a row, UNC starts its season against James Madison. Between this past season’s opener and this one, the Tar Heels suffered a season-ending loss just one game short of the national championship — at the hands of the Dukes.
“Over the past five years we’ve opened up with JMU, so it’s business as usual as far as opening up the season with a really good team,” Levy said. “But we are 0-2 against them the past two times we played them … the loss last year left an impression on us.”
On Feb. 9, UNC kicks off its campaign with a chance to right the wrongs that ended its season in the semifinals this past spring. Here is how the No. 3 team in the country is shaping up for 2019 with a tough schedule that includes 10 of the top 25 teams in 15 games.
The same players who walked off the field in Stony Brook, N.Y., after the semifinal loss will walk back onto it in Chapel Hill as the new leaders of the team. UNC returns nine starters for 2019. The six seniors from last year’s team leave a hole, but Levy is confident she has the personnel to fill it.
In the attacking front, UNC graduated Ela Hazar, who was one of four Tar Heels to contribute more than 80 points this past season. Lucky for the Tar Heels, their top two point contributors return in the form of key distributor junior Katie Hoeg and finesse scorer Jamie Ortega, a sophomore. The two complemented each other, racking up 89 and 86 points a piece this past year. Hoeg did it on 50 assists and 39 goals, and Ortega on 70 goals and 16 assists.
Behind them, Levy highlighted vocal leadership from midfielder Gianna Bowe and defender Charlotte Sofield. Having strong guidance in every phase of the game will be a surefire way to get the most out of the newcomers to the program as quickly as possible.
The fresh faces
For every senior that UNC graduated this past season, they have a new top-100 recruit in the incoming first-year class.
Tayler Warehime is listed as a midfielder, but Levy says that she stood out for her offensive prowess this fall.
“Her IQ for the sport is very impressive as a freshman,” Levy said. “And sometimes I believe that is something that you cannot coach.”
Also at midfield, UNC nabbed Elizabeth Hillman, the No. 1 recruit in the country. Warehime and Hillman were club teammates in high school, and Levy was complimentary of both of their performances this fall. Brooklyn Neumen, a player from Michigan who Levy says "plays gritty," will join them in the midfield.
Even with the injection of young players into the center unit, Levy likes the look and cohesiveness of the midfield at this early point.
“I can tell you that this new group is exciting to watch,” Levy said. “They’re fast and they play well together so we like that in the middle of the field.”
Both Hillman and Neumen were picked for the 2019 U.S. U19 Women's Training Team, along with fellow first-year Kimber Hower. Gabi Hall and Amanda Fedor round out the top 100 for the talented class.
Sofield will have some help in anchoring the last line for the Tar Heels. There are three other players with previous starting experience returning, including junior co-captain Erin Kelly, and sophomores Kayla Wood and Emma Trenchard.
There will be a star-studded rotation in the crease for UNC, as both Elise Hennessey and ACC Tournament MVP Taylor Moreno got extensive starting experience at goalkeeper last season. Hower also comes in with impressive credentials as the No. 4 goalkeeper recruit in her class.
Levy likes her chances of finding a strong defensive unit, though it may take time to identify who the first string will be.
“It’s a work in progress right now to find the group that we like the best,” she said.
Levy doesn’t expect the team to have it all together in game one, even with a bit of revenge on the line. But that’s OK.
The Tar Heels will need to "trust the process," even when it is slow, Levy said, and if they can do that:
“Then we will end up with a pretty happy year,” Levy said. “Maybe extremely happy.”
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