Feline Guenther, her coach will tell you, is a “type-A kid” — detail-oriented and highly dedicated to both her role as a midfielder on the North Carolina field hockey team and a student in the Kenan-Flagler Business School.
For most of this fall, she was juggling both in full force: starting and playing heavy minutes for UNC in the regular season while doing applications and job interviews whenever possible.
But now that Guenther’s accepted a postgraduate job at the Charlotte accounting firm GreerWalker, she’s been able to devote 100 percent of her physical and mental energy to field hockey — and the results have been eye-popping.
On Sunday, the senior scored a 46th-minute game-winning goal for the Tar Heels, who beat Iowa, 2-1, in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to their 11th consecutive Final Four.
It came on the heels of an impressive Friday performance, too: a goal and an assist in a first-round win over Stanford. Quite the contrast for a player who, as of two weeks ago, hadn’t scored once for North Carolina in the regular season.
“It really helped her focus on field hockey — not that she wasn’t focused before, but she was focused on a lot of other things as well,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “I think that was a huge stress reliever, to get a job, to know she’s going to be in Charlotte at a huge accounting firm down there. She’s just been on fire ever since.”
Guenther’s hot streak technically started on senior day. With her parents Cathrin and Michael in the crowd at Shelton Stadium, she scored twice against Saint Joseph’s — including an overtime game-winner — on Nov. 3 to preserve a second straight perfect regular season for UNC.
“People say it's because my parents arrived here — my mom is still here from Germany — and maybe that's the extra support," Guenther said with a laugh. "But going into postseason is just a great feeling. Every single game just means so much to me as a senior."
She scored her third goal of the season against Louisville in the ACC semifinals, her fourth against Stanford and her fifth, which set a career high for a single season, when her team needed it most.
North Carolina and Iowa played a scrappy first half Sunday, combining for just three shots in the first two periods. Both teams scored off penalty corners — the Hawkeyes’ Sofie Stribos in the 18th minute, and the Tar Heels’ Erin Matson in the 25th — to knot things at 1-1 entering the half.
UNC played with fire in the third period, allowing two penalty corners but ultimately stopping both. That set the stage for an intense final 15 minutes with a trip to Winston-Salem and next weekend's Final Four on the line.
“We looked at each other before the beginning of the fourth quarter,” senior Marissa Creatore said, “and just said, ‘This has been our quarter the entire season, so let's finish the game.’”
They finished the game in the next 26 seconds.
As soon as the whistle blew, UNC hit the gas pedal and executed a “series of two-touch passes,” as Creatore put it, that had Iowa’s sturdy defense scrambling.
Catherine Hayden made a long run down the middle and hit Creatore, who unleashed a no-hesitation pass from the left side of the goal to the right.
That’s where Guenther, in the final seconds of a dead sprint from midfield, caught it in stride and punched home a short goal past Iowa goalie Leslie Speight. Chaos ensued. Even a good 30 minutes later, in postgame interviews, Guenther said she was “still totally overwhelmed.”
“All I remember is I just threw my body in there and was just hoping that I scored,” she said. “It was unbelievable. The next second, I just got up and saw the whole team running toward me.”
Ironically enough, this game-winner was almost identical to her previous one against St. Joseph’s: an assist from Creatore on the left, a Guenther goal sent into the right corner of the net.
“I don't know, we have some kind of telepathy with her on the far post there,” Creatore said. “She's also just a hustler. Her coming out of the midfield is just a (flash) of lightning to that far post. Just incredible. I knew she'd be there.”
Guenther, who played a year of field hockey at the University of Hamburg in Germany before transferring to UNC, said her motivation this year has been simple. Shelton and the team have given her so much over the last three years. It’s only fair that she gives something back.
With all five of her 2019 goals in the last five games, she’s definitely done that.
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