Revenge is a dish best served cold, but the Tar Heels didn't wait too long to get theirs.
UNC field hockey came into the 2020 campaign riding a historic 46-game winning streak, looking to complete a third straight perfect season that would end in a national championship. The team won its season opener against Wake Forest, 3-1, extending the streak to 47.
Then, on Oct. 2, the Tar Heels played Louisville on the road.
They went down 1-0. They went down 2-0.
Their comeback attempt was stymied and they ultimately lost, 3-1, ending the longest active win streak in Division I sports and the second-longest win streak in NCAA field hockey history.
Head coach Karen Shelton later said the team was sluggish in that game, perhaps a result of an unusual season altered by COVID-19. The Tar Heels had just eight regular season games — half the number they normally play — all against ACC opponents. And there was a nearly two-week gap between the Wake Forest game and the Louisville game.
Still, Shelton and others were quick to say that the team had to (and would) play better. Players mentioned being able to play more freely after the loss, not having to deal with the pressure of perfection every game. Against Duke and Virginia, UNC won its next two games by a combined eight goals.
The margins became thinner after that; the Tar Heels won 2-1 against Virginia on Oct. 12 and 1-0 against Syracuse on Oct. 16. They then had to sweat out a 5-4 overtime win against the Blue Devils, a team they had handled 4-0 just two weeks prior. Junior forward Hannah Griggs scored the decisive goal to avoid a second loss in the 2020 season.
After a matchup against Boston College was postponed and then canceled due to COVID-19, UNC closed the regular season with another rout of Wake Forest, 5-0. Next came a shot at the ACC Championship, and a shot at avenging the team's only defeat since 2017.
First, the team would have to survive more late-game dramatics. After a 4-0 win against Boston College in the conference quarterfinals, the Tar Heels found themselves in overtime against Syracuse, with a spot in the ACC Championship against Louisville on the line. When senior Bryn Boylan delivered on a penalty stroke goal in the fifth minute of overtime, Shelton became the winningest coach in NCAA field hockey history — nabbing her 701st career victory in a stadium bearing her own name.
"I'm proud of our team for finding a way to win," Shelton said after the game. "We wanted to play for a championship, we wanted to have another chance to play Louisville, and we've earned that."
And so just a little over a month later, North Carolina got its rematch against the Cardinals, this time with a conference title on the line.
Again, they went down 1-0. Again, they went down 2-0.
But this time, the Tar Heels ripped off four straight goals to complete a comeback, and something of a revenge tour, with a 4-2 win. Star forward Erin Matson notched two goals, while Boylan and sophomore Madison Orobono each added one.
"Once we lost (to Louisville), then had an opportunity to play against them for a championship," Boylan said, "that got us fired up."
In a normal year, Shelton's team would be gearing up for another national title run right now, but the NCAA postseason was delayed to the spring due to the pandemic. The Tar Heels will have to wait to put the finishing touches on this bizarre year and end an only-slightly-imperfect season with a national championship win.
Until then, they'll have to be satisfied with a fourth straight conference title, their 23rd all time, plus avenging their only loss of the last three seasons in dominant fashion.
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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