All signs pointed to an upset and an end to No. 1 North Carolina field hockey’s winning streak. UNC was facing No. 17 Liberty on just one day of rest, and was without its captain and co-leader in assists, Yentl Leemans. Even the overcast weather was ominous.
But a team effort from the Tar Heels pushed them to a 3-2 victory over the Flames in Chapel Hill on Sunday, and extended their winning streak to 37 games. The score may have been a little closer than expected, but head coach Karen Shelton was happy with the result.
“I’m pleased with the win,” Shelton said. “It’s a different kind of tactic that they used, we didn’t handle it quite as well as we could’ve. But going forward, if we see it again, we will be better prepared.”
Rather than pressing up, Liberty sat back and played conservatively for most of the game, attempting to frustrate the UNC offense. But according to Shelton, this tactic actually served to help the Tar Heels in the absence of Leemans.
First-year Karlijn Goes played in lieu of Leemans, who was out with a foot injury. There was no question that missing Leemans was a huge loss for this team, but Goes and her teammates performed well in her absence, in part due to the Flames' defensive strategy.
“I thought she did a fantastic job,” Shelton said. “She plays simply, she gets the ball she gives the ball … I was a little bit pleased that Liberty backed off of us some. A lot of teams will press us a little harder, so I think that helped.”
Goes and Leemans have a special connection — they're both from the Netherlands.
“She’s a role model,” Goes said of Leemans. “Off the field and on the field she is very helpful for me with everything. I learn a lot from her, her technique, how hard she works, just everything.”
Despite Goes’ solid performance, North Carolina initially struggled against Liberty’s unique style of play. UNC scored just one goal in open play, with the other two coming off of penalty strokes from senior Megan DuVernois and sophomore Erin Matson.
“We had our chances, and I think that happened in the Wake game, too,” Shelton said. “We had a lot of chances, and we just didn’t finish. The good thing is we’re creating lots of chances. But we gotta work on our finishing.”
The Tar Heels’ goal in open play was scored by senior Marissa Creatore after Matson made an impressive run into the box. The reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year beat multiple defenders, then drew Liberty’s goalkeeper out before delivering a perfect pass to Creatore for a goal.
“Erin’s an incredible passer, just as much as she is an incredible scorer,” Creatore said. “I’m just always expecting a good pass from her right on the forehand, and that's what she delivered.”
North Carolina will need to find another way to score though, because Matson is joining the U.S. national team in India for its games on Nov. 1 and 2. There's also no timetable for Leemans’ return to the field. Without two of its most important players, an ACC-record win streak for UNC will continue to be put to the test.
"We're just working on that next man up (mentality)," Creatore said. "Everyone plays at the same intensity."
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