In an already unusual season for the North Carolina field hockey team, it took an unusual week of practice — which followed an even more unusual game — to vault the team to a dominant, standard-issue, unremarkable, all-too-predictable 5-1 win over Virginia on Sunday.
First, the Tar Heels dropped the second game of their 2020 slate, losing to Louisville 3-1 on the road last Friday. That ended a 47-game win streak and dashed UNC’s hopes of a third straight perfect season. As in, two seasons in a row without a loss— yes, current juniors on the team couldn’t accurately describe to you what a college field hockey defeat felt like before that game — before scoring just one goal and being out-passed, outshot and out-cornered by the Cardinals.
The Tar Heels turned around and handled business two days later, eviscerating rival Duke in a 4-0 rout. That one, admittedly, wasn’t too out of the ordinary. Since then, though, UNC had what head coach Karen Shelton admitted was a mostly “dead” week of practice, their first real chance to reflect on the Louisville game. It felt at times like pulling teeth, Shelton said, trying to bounce back from a rare loss in an already dreary, pandemic-shortened nine-game season.
Noticing a pattern here?
But humans are creatures of habit, after all, and the Tar Heels seemed to be aching to get back to their normal routine against Virginia. The week ended with a much better practice on Saturday, then a mojo-changing lead-up to Sunday’s game — complete with the requisite pregame music, according to star forward Erin Matson. It all culminated in a three-goal explosion in the third period that signed, sealed and delivered a win against the Cavaliers.
“We reflected a lot, learned a lot,” Matson said of the previous week. “We just wanted to learn from the loss and put it behind us. You have to be happy with a 47-1 record (over the last three years), so I think it was just about keeping the good energy and playing our game.”
Matson got things started in a drenched Karen Shelton Stadium, finding the back of the cage early in the second period with an assist from junior Hannah Griggs. At the half, UNC led 10-3 in shots and 4-1 in penalty corners but still only had one goal to show for it.
Enter sophomore midfielder Paityn Wirth, playing in her fourth game as a Tar Heel after transferring from Penn State in the offseason. There, she started all 20 games and recorded five goals and five assists. Through her short UNC career, though, she had yet to notch a goal or assist — until the third period on Sunday, when she scored twice in less than 10 minutes to put the game out of reach.
“She’s had a lot of ‘almosts,’” Shelton said. “But I think perhaps she needed to break the ice. So getting one, and then the other, was important for her.”
Wirth played for an 8-12 Nittany Lion team in 2019, so she’s a bit more acquainted with defeat than her teammates. Still, it looked like she felt the importance of staying on the right track Sunday, tapping in one goal and rifling in another in her only two shots on goal.
“That loss taught us a lot of things as a team,” Wirth said. “You don’t win as much from winning as you do from losing. Obviously I wasn't a part of those wins in the past two years. However, for the team, it definitely took a toll on them, and I felt for them.”
Matson mentioned that despite what the past two years would suggest, this team is still figuring out how to play with each other, still getting a sense of where your teammate will be and when they’ll be there. Wirth showed on Sunday that she could be a crucial piece of that championship puzzle moving forward.
A Tar Heel doing her part in the chase for another title? That doesn’t seem altogether unusual.
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