Through three games this season, the No. 1 North Carolina field hockey team is writing a different story from last year.
In 2018, the team was a dominant, undefeated powerhouse. This season, though the Tar Heels are still undefeated thus far, they're the comeback kids.
With five minutes left, UNC trailed 3-1 in Friday's matchup against No. 5 Princeton in the ACC-Ivy League Conference Crossover. It looked like the team might suffer its first loss in the last 26 games.
“We told them to keep it simple,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “We are a two-touch passing team and when we over-carry, and we try to force things and play down the middle, we make it tough on ourselves.”
The Tigers had all of the momentum after scoring their third goal late in the second quarter. However, the Tar Heels had been there before.
Just a week earlier, UNC trailed early against both No. 7 Michigan and No. 8 Iowa. On Friday, the Tar Heels were in the same situation against Princeton.
“I told them at the half, let’s play for overtime,” Shelton said. “Let’s get two goals, and we will play for overtime.”
But the team didn't need to wait for overtime. With just over five minutes remaining in the game, sophomore Erin Matson scored her first goal to make it 3-2. Then, about one minute after that goal, senior Megan DuVernois followed up with her first goal of the season on a penalty shot to tie the game.
At this point, it looked like the Tar Heels had done what Shelton wanted and forced the game into overtime. But Marissa Creatore wasn't done.
With just 24 seconds remaining, the senior forward received a well-timed pass from Matson and hurled a powerful shot into the goal to win the game for the Tar Heels.
The comeback had been completed. Again.
After the game, Shelton pointed out the many mistakes and ways that UNC can improve, including having quicker restarts. However, a win is a win.
“I'm proud of our team for sticking together and finding a way in the end,” Shelton said.
Even though UNC has showed its perseverance early in the season, it will be very difficult to keep these comeback wins coming.
“For some reason we aren’t starting as fast as we want, and we talked about it,” Shelton said. “We talked about being down the first two games, and it was a goal of ours to start quickly."
If the Tar Heels want another year as national champions, they will need to make some changes. One way they could do that is to limit early goals from the opposing team. UNC has allowed six goals in three games, and five of them have come in the first half.
“We know we have to play better defense,” Shelton said. “It’s a trademark of a Carolina team.”
Although having to come back every game isn’t a great recipe for success, it provides for some exciting victories and some true tests of character.
“We were really lucky to win this game,” Shelton said. “But we had to do something special in order to win it so I am happy for that.”
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