This season has been anything but normal for the No. 1 UNC field hockey team.
The team played an almost full schedule in the fall and is in the midst of its spring season. Due to COVID-19, the ACC was the only conference to hold a fall season, and the Tar Heels came out on top, defeating Louisville in the ACC Championship, 4-2.
Normally in the spring, play is limited to scrimmages and a few competition dates — this spring, however, the team has played a regular-season of games and will potentially play a full postseason leading up to the NCAA Championship.
Because of the length of the season and its strain on the players, head coach Karen Shelton planned a special surprise for her team on Tuesday.
“We had talked about doing pickleball earlier, so we brought some rackets and instead of practicing, we had a little fun," Shelton said. "This was a good time in the season to take a break.”
It seemed like the team appreciated their head coach's gesture — at least senior goalkeeper Amanda Hendry and redshirt junior forward Meredith Sholder, who won the doubles tournament, did.
“Especially with back-to-back seasons and practice every day, it made things less repetitive,” Sholder said. “It was nice to do something new and different instead of practice. When Coach surprised us with pickleball, everybody was so happy, their faces lit up, and it was such an exciting day.”
Heading into the spring season, the Tar Heels already had a target on their backs with a recent ACC Championship win and 10-1 record in the fall. The team has only continued its winning streak with an undefeated 4-0 start in the spring thus far.
After defeating Duke in double overtime, 4-3, and Virginia in overtime, 3-2, the team is preparing for the challenges that lie ahead. The Tar Heels will play their final game of the regular season at Syracuse on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The team has not faced Syracuse since the semifinals of the ACC Tournament back in November, so the game is sure to be an intense one. Although the last game was an overtime 4-3 win for UNC, Shelton knows the strength and intensity of this Syracuse side.
“This game is a test and an opportunity for us to get better," Shelton said. "If we don’t win the game, Syracuse exploited something and that will be identified. “We would be able to work on our weaknesses going into the (Automatic Qualifier) game, and beyond that, the NCAA Tournament.”
After Sunday, the team will play in the ACC Automatic Qualifier game on Friday, April 23 at Karen Shelton Stadium. The stakes are high since there are only three total at-large bids available and 12 teams who will make the field for the NCAA Tournament, hosted this year by UNC.
“I’m hoping for a good last postseason,” Hendry said. “I have potentially six games left, so I’m hoping to have six great games with my teammates and finish out the year strong.”
Despite the challenges from COVID-19 this year and the lengthiness of the season, the team has pushed through and held its ranking as the number one field hockey team in the country. The Tar Heels have their vision set on a third consecutive NCAA Championship and know what it takes to get there.
“Our kids are resilient and tough-minded, and I’m so proud of our group over the Fall and the Spring that we have put ourselves in a position where we are going to play in the AQ game,” Shelton said. “We always say that the most important game of the season is the next game. And that is how we feel about Syracuse; it is the most important game of the season.”
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