The North Carolina men’s lacrosse team suffered a disappointing 11-10 loss to Johns Hopkins on Feb. 23, 2019, part of a season that would see the team finish last place in the ACC. But that wasn’t the case this past Saturday when the Tar Heels blew out the Blue Jays 17-10.
The difference between these two results epitomizes the contrast between these two seasons and illuminates the offensive turnaround of the UNC program.
After starting 2020 with a 4-0 record, it is clear that the No. 4 Tar Heels have turned a corner and have a chance to return to the glory they experienced in 2016, when they won the national championship.
The game against then-No. 15 Johns Hopkins on Saturday put the difference between this Tar Heel team and last year's on full display.
The most clear and obvious one? Chris Gray.
The addition of the country's most prized transfer has proved to be program-changing. The junior came to Chapel Hill from Boston University with no shortage of accolades — he led the NCAA with 111 points last season, and this year was voted onto the Preseason All-ACC Team as an attacker and was named a preseason first team All-American by Inside Lacrosse.
The expectations were sky-high, and Gray has lived up to them so far, exploding for eight goals and one assist against the Blue Jays, leading North Carolina to a statement win.
He also leads UNC with 27 points off of 16 goals and 11 assists in just four games. The Tar Heels' leading point-getter in 2019 was Timmy Kelly, who ended up with 36 points in 15 games.
The current vibe around the team is a stark contrast from when it lost to Johns Hopkins last season. The Tar Heels finished with an 8-7 record in 2019 and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Gray's impact has been seen in both the individual stats and the team stats. Through four games, UNC has scored 74 goals, as opposed to just 60 goals through the same span last season.
However, there is one more difference that can’t be overlooked, and it's in the net. Goalkeeper Caton Johnson also came into the season with high expectations, having been voted onto the preseason All-ACC team and named an honorable mention preseason All-American by Inside Lacrosse.
The sophomore started the final six games of 2019 for the Tar Heels and all four games so far this season. His impact on the team has been apparent, as he posted the highest save percentage last season out of the three goalkeepers that saw significant time and has a .545 save percentage this season while allowing just 7.3 goals per game.
Both Gray and Johnson have raised the quality of play within the UNC lacrosse program and it is seen in this season’s results. The Tar Heels have won every game by seven or more goals and have allowed 10 or less goals in each game.
Perhaps UNC will be able to continue that trend and get revenge on another team it lost to last season as it travels to Denver to take on No. 14 Denver on Sunday. The Tar Heels will need big games from its two difference makers if it wants to make another statement.
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