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Sunday October 17th

'A second father': UNC's Joe Breschi, nephew Alex strengthen bond through lacrosse

UNC men's lacrosse coach Joe Breschi embraces player and nephew Alex Breschi (88) after a 24-8 win against Lafayette in UNC Lacrosse Soccer Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kendall Harden/UNC Athletic Communications
Buy Photos UNC men's lacrosse coach Joe Breschi embraces player and nephew Alex Breschi (88) after a 24-8 win against Lafayette in UNC Lacrosse Soccer Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kendall Harden/UNC Athletic Communications

First-year defensive midfielder Alex Breschi scored his second goal of the season for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team midway through the third quarter against Lafayette in February. After the goal, he started to tear up as he ran to the sideline toward UNC head coach Joe Breschi, his father’s cousin, for a 15-second embrace.

Two days before the game, the first-year’s grandfather, George Breschi, died from complications from a heart surgery that had plagued him for about a year. One of the game’s commentators aptly noted how “that hug was more than lacrosse.”

“That was probably the most special moment I’ve ever had with a coach and with my uncle,” Breschi said. “It was really powerful and just a great moment for the two of us.”

And for the UNC coach, he knew exactly how much of an impact a familiar face could have on someone going through the dark times that come with losing a loved one. After all, he isn’t a stranger to loss.

On March 1, 2004, Breschi, then-head coach of Ohio State’s men’s lacrosse team, was sitting in the team’s weight room. An athletic trainer came in and told him his son Michael had been in an accident.

Breschi raced to the hospital and found his 3-year-old on life support. He had been struck by a car in the parking lot of his preschool, an accident that would prove to be fatal.

“It was a very difficult time, to say the least,” Breschi said.

Through all the losses Alex and his “Uncle Joe” have dealt with, lacrosse has been there as a coping mechanism. Now, as the two wrap up the first year of their new player-coach relationship, they’re realizing just how much stronger this experience has made their bond.

‘He brought an entire community together’

The Breschi name is a familiar one for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse program.

Before he became the team’s head coach in 2009 and won a national championship with the Tar Heels in 2016, Joe was a defender on the team from 1987-90. By the end of his playing days in Chapel Hill, he was a two-time U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association All-American.

During his senior season with the Tar Heels, he was able to play alongside Chuck Breschi, Alex’s father. That stint made it easy for him to see where his nephew learned the game.

“I think the confidence, the drive to be successful and the drive to be great is exactly what his father was like,” Breschi said. “You can totally see that competitive fire in both of them.”

When Dave Klarmann took over as UNC’s head coach ahead of the 1991 season, he hired Breschi as an assistant coach.

In his first year on the coaching staff, the Tar Heels went undefeated en route to their fourth national championship in program history. Breschi became the head coach of his own team at Ohio State by 1998.

In his first six seasons with the Buckeyes, he had transformed a “glorified club team” into a squad that began making NCAA Tournament appearances, while juggling a household that jumped from zero to three kids in less than three years.

“I think the coaching aspect helped me become a better parent, but the parenting aspect also allowed me to become a better coach and understand what patience is,” Breschi said.

Breschi’s first child, Michael, was born in 2000 and could regularly be found on top of his dad’s shoulders at practices or playing with members of the team during breaks.

“It was awesome,” Breschi said. “They were like big brothers to him.”

After his son’s death, the OSU community showed an outpouring of love for Breschi.

Ohio State created the Michael R. Breschi Fund, a yearly scholarship awarded to a member of the school’s lacrosse team. A couple years after Breschi took the head coaching position at UNC in 2008, the two schools organized an annual scrimmage to honor his late son and raise money for the scholarship.

The UNC coach’s nephew got the chance to make his first appearance in the yearly game last fall.

“The biggest impact Michael had was that by age 3, he brought an entire community together,” Alex said.

Now, over 15 years after his son’s death, part of what helps the North Carolina coach handle that loss is having his nephew in Chapel Hill.

“When I look at him, I have that sense and that feeling that this is where Mike would be,” Breschi said. “I kind of view him as if he were my son.”

‘A stronger bond’

Alex first fell in love with lacrosse when he was around 6 years old.

“I decided to play lacrosse when I was watching my dad play in Ocean City, and he hit a guy really hard,” he said. “I was playing T-ball, and I asked my dad if I could ever hit anybody that hard, and he said ‘not if you keep playing baseball.’ I chose to play lacrosse that day.”

Heading into high school, the younger Breschi wasn’t seriously considering a future in lacrosse. During his first visit to North Carolina, he didn’t even fully realize he was being recruited. But by October of his first year in high school, he was committed to UNC.

“I remember being so happy and proud to be there,” he said. “It’s such a great opportunity, and I’m truly blessed to be in the position I’m in today.”

After stepping on campus in 2019, Breschi never felt a sense of pressure to live up to his family’s reputation. His teammates immediately took an interest in his eagerness to learn and took him under their wings.

“He was always the first one to come off the field and ask me questions in practice,” sophomore midfielder Connor Maher said. “He was always reaching out to older guys and coming over to me just wanting to learn all the time. He was just super easy to teach, super hard worker and made it easy for the rest of us to help bring him along.”

Away from the field, Breschi bonded with his roommate, first-year midfielder Quintin O’Connell, over classic rock music and Martin Scorsese films. O’Connell admired Breschi’s genuine demeanor, and an instant friendship formed.

O’Connell knows what it’s like to have a family member on the team — his older brother, Ryan, is a junior midfielder for the Tar Heels — and recognizes how strong the connection between his roommate and their coach is.

“(Being on the same team) makes a stronger bond between you and your loved one, so I think we both just sort of have a deep appreciation for that,” O’Connell said.

“Off the field, you can tell in their interactions that they definitely have that connection between them of family,” Maher added. “The way they talk to each other, the way they interact, they’re always happy to see each other.”

‘I never felt like I was on my own’

Although COVID-19 brought their first season together in Chapel Hill to an early end, it didn’t stop the Breschis from being there for each other over the last year.

Alex stopped by his uncle’s office for one-on-one talks several times a week. His coach always reminded him that there should never be any pressure on him because of his last name, but he also wasn’t going to have anything handed to him because of it. 

“He’s a great coach, but more than that he’s a great man, a great role model, and I do see him as a second father,” Alex said. “He’s a great person to talk to, and his love for me and the rest of my teammates is beyond what we can do on the lacrosse field.”

In the weeks following Alex’s grandfather’s death, that love grew even more.

They flew to Baltimore to join the rest of their family, and the UNC coach could tell that his normally stoic nephew was struggling to keep it together. Once the season was cut short and the pair went their separate ways, they stayed in touch with frequent phone calls.

“That was a time where my teammates always had me if I was down, my uncle was always there for me, coach (Kevin Unterstein) was always there for me,” Alex said. “There were tough times, but I never felt like I was on my own.”

As the two have grown closer over the last year, it’s only built the anticipation to get back out on the field together.

“It was difficult, but in a difficult time like this, you just gotta look forward,” Alex said. “You can’t let something like this that’s completely out of your control really take a toll on you. As much as it sucks, you just gotta keep preparing for what’s forward.”

@McMastersJ

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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