WINSTON SALEM, N.C. -- Early this season, the North Carolina field hockey team looked beatable.
But it wasn't – all because of the “culture of belief” that head coach Karen Shelton has instilled in her program. It's a culture that led to a second straight perfect season for the Tar Heels, culminating in a 6-1 victory over Princeton in Sunday's national championship.
To start the year, UNC trailed in its first two games, but managed to squeeze out close victories against Michigan and Iowa.
Then came the third game, a matchup against then-No. 5 Princeton: the perfect chance for the Tar Heels to show the country that they were still the powerhouse that everyone thought they were.
The game didn’t go as planned. Princeton led 3-1 with just over five minutes to play, and it looked like North Carolina’s winning streak was going to come to an end. It looked like the beast had been tamed.
But that's not how the Tar Heels saw it. They believed.
North Carolina scored three goals in just over five minutes to keep the winning streak alive.
“I do think that Princeton game was a turning point for our team, and I think that was kind of a, ‘Woah,'” Shelton said. "... At that point we realized that we could score in bunches, and that we were not quitters. We’re fighters and winners.”
The belief that is ingrained in the North Carolina field hockey team was put on full display in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels cruised through their first round game against Stanford, winning 4-0, before hitting a bump in the road. In their second round matchup, they went down a goal early to Iowa, but they weren’t worried. It was just a repeat of what UNC had been through earlier. Goals by sophomore Erin Matson and senior Feline Guenther took care of the problem.
“I think it just comes from the girls on the team," senior forward Marissa Creatore said. "I really think we believe in each other. There’s never that, ‘Oh, we’re a goal down we don’t have the skill, we don’t have the heart to win it.’ We know that we have that, and so, when we’ve gone down this season, we just look at each other and say, ‘Let’s go.’ And every time it’s happened.”
In North Carolina’s Final Four matchup with Boston College, the team trailed again. The Eagles scored a goal less than a minute into the game to go up 1-0 then again in the second quarter to take a 2-1 lead over UNC. But there it was again — belief.
“They’ve gone down goals to great teams in the past, and they just find a way to win,” Boston College head coach Kelly Doton said. “It’s not just this team. I played against them. It’s the culture that Karen and that staff has produced over her 40 years. They just have a culture of belief. I would be lying if I don’t say I’m envious of that.”
That culture was tested one more time in the NCAA championship game against Princeton. The Tar Heels had to come back against the Tigers again in order to finish it all.
But there would be no late-game drama. North Carolina went down 1-0 early in the game and responded with a resounding six straight goals to claim the title.
“We just know that if we just play our game, we are able to do anything, and it showed today,” senior midfielder Yentl Leemans said. “You can be mad about the fact that they scored first, but if you look at the way that we came back, that just shows how good we are.”
And after two consecutive perfect seasons, the only question remaining is this: what will stop them from doing it again?
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