If there were ever a time for the North Carolina field hockey team to lose, it would have been Sunday.
It was the final game of a season that would see no real ending. There was no NCAA Tournament seeding to jockey for, no third straight national championship to strive toward and no record-breaking winning streak to protect.
In the opening half of Sunday’s ACC Championship matchup with Louisville, the Tar Heels looked dead in the water. After falling into a 2-0 deficit against a Cardinals group that had snapped UNC’s 47-game winning streak just a month before, it looked as though the Tar Heels were something they hadn’t been in over two years: beatable.
Despite the deficit — and a powerful Louisville offense that notched more shots and more penalty corners, and dominated possession for much of the game’s first half — it was the Tar Heels who took to Franklin Street donning t-shirts and hats declaring them the best in the ACC, once again, as champions.
“It’s all about the end goal,” said Erin Matson, a junior forward who iced a 4-2 UNC victory with a goal in the final minutes. “Whenever there were little pebbles in the road, people would figure it out and come together.”
As the Tar Heels had done so many times before in their seemingly endless stretch of dominance, they found a way to win. Firing off four consecutive goals and refusing to let Louisville opportunities slip into the net, North Carolina rushed the field as the game’s final buzzer sounded and reclaimed its spot atop the landscape of collegiate field hockey.
“A lot of challenges, a lot of stuff we had to go through as a team — but we managed it, we became closer, became stronger,” Matson said. “This is why we play field hockey.”
It was a season that would have been unthinkable to the Tar Heels just a year prior, when they won their third straight ACC Championship. Uncertainty loomed throughout an offseason of social distancing and modified training, before the ACC decided on a conference-only, abbreviated game schedule with a tournament at the end to name a champion.
UNC knew there wouldn’t be a third straight national title to claim this fall — the NCAA moved all fall championships to the spring, and many conferences didn’t get to take the field at all — but head coach Karen Shelton said the team’s focus never faltered.
“They’ve had to remain in a bubble, and I know everybody kind of does, but everybody has a little bit more freedom, you know everybody else doesn’t have the responsibility of perhaps infecting 35 other people,” Shelton said. “It’s a huge commitment. And so I credit our team for sticking with it.”
For a Tar Heel group that has only dropped one game in the last 1,000-plus days, they entered Sunday’s game with a chip on their shoulders. Not only because they were the self-proclaimed “underdog” after dropping a game to Louisville earlier this year, but because of the collective sacrifice it took to continue to compete for months on end amid a still-worsening pandemic.
“We’ve sacrificed so much for this season, just to have this season and to be able to play every game,” senior Bryn Boylan said. “That just prepared us to go out there and be thankful that we can compete."
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