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'She's so zen': How Jenny Levy built UNC women's lacrosse from the ground up

UNC women's lacrosse coach Jenny Levy is given a Gatorade bath by players Caylee Waters (right) and Naomi Lerner (left). The North Carolina women's lacrosse team defeated Maryland 13-7 to capture the NCAA championship on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA.

UNC women's lacrosse coach Jenny Levy is given a Gatorade bath by players Caylee Waters (right) and Naomi Lerner (left). The North Carolina women's lacrosse team defeated Maryland 13-7 to capture the NCAA championship on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA.

Scottie Rose Growney, a senior attacker on the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team, recalls a game during her sophomore year when UNC went into halftime after playing an ugly first frame. Sitting in the locker room, she expected the Tar Heels to be reprimanded for their mistakes.

Instead, head coach Jenny Levy entered with a smile on her face and said, “Isn’t this fun?”

“She is always calm, cool and collected,” Growney said. “Some coaches might be yelling at their team after a bad game, but she’s never done that. She stays calm.”

As she enters her 26th year as North Carolina's head coach, the two-time National Coach of the Year has forged a legacy for the Tar Heels’ program over the last quarter-century. 

As the only person to ever helm UNC women's lacrosse, Levy has built the program from the ground up. During her tenure, UNC has earned 21 NCAA Tournament bids, 11 NCAA Tournament semifinals, five ACC Championships and two NCAA Tournament titles — 2013 and 2016 — giving her ACC Coach of the Year honors five times to boot.

In short, she manufactured an empire over the last 25 years.

'She's so zen'

The athletes she has mentored over the years say she has built the program by teaching her players to approach the game with joy, creating an environment of humility and, most importantly, chiming in at the perfect time with her signature catchphrases. 

“She's so zen,” Growney said. “I think she takes a lot of the things that she tells us to ground us, like ‘Be where your feet are,’ and ‘Take a deep breath to center yourself’ from yoga classes.”

Ally Mastroianni, a senior midfielder, said Levy's phrases help to center the Tar Heels entering games where anxiety is high. 

“‘Keep it at a low simmer;’ she always says that,” Mastroianni said. “She told us to be calm in the beginning of the week, at a low simmer, so at game time, we’re boiling.”

When the Tar Heels won their last ACC Championship against Boston College in 2019, they faced a two-goal deficit at halftime. UNC had already been blown out 14-8 by the Eagles in one of only two ACC losses that season.

Levy gathered the Tar Heels in the locker room during the conference championship and motivated them with one of her famous catchphrases.

"Another thing she often says to us is 'The game has no memory,'" Growney said. "And that's what she said to us that day."

UNC came back to score eight goals in the second half, taking the game 15-13. 

'We were pretty successful right away'

It's hard to imagine that before all the accolades and accomplishments, Levy didn't always know what she was doing as a coach.

But that was exactly the case.

“To be quite honest, I was really young when I took the (UNC) job — I did not have a lot of coaching experience at all,” Levy said. “I was super naïve, I was driven, I thought we could win a championship in four years.”

In a warm tone, Levy chuckled as she reminisced about the beginning of her head coaching days.

“I look back and think, ‘I was really clueless,’” Levy said. “I followed every instinct I had and mimicked what I knew as a player, and we were pretty successful right away, but we were also very far from achieving long-term success like we have now.”

A large part of UNC's hardware lies in the stretch of four straight ACC titles the Tar Heels won between 2016 and 2019. When last season was canceled due to COVID-19, North Carolina was in the midst of an undefeated campaign and a No. 1 national ranking. 

Growney said UNC's recent success, including two national championships in 2013 and 2016, has propelled the Tar Heels to become an elite program that can compete nationally on an annual basis. 

“You have your programs that have always been good the Marylands and the Northwesterns and Carolina has always been in the mix, but the past 10 years we have made a statement that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Growney said. “Being a part of a program that has grown so much from what Jenny initially started, it is an amazing feeling.”

Camaraderie is at the center of any successful program, and it’s something Levy has made a priority since day one in Chapel Hill.

Both Growney and Mastroianni mentioned a tradition that Levy has before each practice — a moment that has been special to them in their time with the team.

Levy has the team stand in a circle in the middle of the field, discussing current events or quotes with the players while tying her message into lessons about both lacrosse and life. 

“Then she says, 'Alright, be in this moment now, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and give it your all for these few hours,’” Mastroianni said. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to have that to look forward to every single day, no matter what is going on in our lives, and know that we have a coach who cares for us and believes in us. And she’s built this program through that.”

'Training women to recognize their full potential'

Despite her large list of accomplishments, Levy thinks she's nowhere near finished yet. 

When she speaks about her plans for the future, Levy's scope goes well beyond maintaining North Carolina as a national power. As the coach of the United States Women's National Team, her sights are set on the growth of the sport internationally. 

“Part of the vision for the sport is Olympic inclusion, specifically into the 2028 Olympics,” Levy said. “This is so important for the growth of the sport across the world and to be able to use it as a vehicle to continue training women to recognize their full potential and their own power.”

Looking back over the past 25 seasons, the head coach said that seeing the success from her current players and alumni, both on and off the field, keeps her motivated. Some of Levy's proudest moments as a coach have come in watching her players fully embrace themselves both as individuals and athletes. 

“A lot of women struggle with confidence, and student-athletes, even the most amazing student-athletes, struggle with confidence," Levy said. "So it’s not a title, an athletic title or a doctorate that is the most important. It’s realizing that you’re good enough.”

As for the upcoming season, Levy is just excited to get back onto the field with her team after a difficult, 10-month offseason. After all, that undefeated 2020 squad has unfinished business.

“The challenge of COVID is an interesting one that we’re all dealing with, regardless if you’re an athlete or not," Levy said. "But it’s a good way to see how tight your culture is, how good your team is, and we’re excited to see how we stand up to the test.”


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