After dropping two straight games against top-10 conference foes Duke and Virginia, the No. 5 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team looks ahead to a challenging ACC-packed schedule.
Before those losses, the Tar Heels began the season 8-0 and hadn’t lost a game since 2019.
Their offense has been fueled by a large veteran presence, with six fifth-year seniors due to COVID-19 redshirts. The daunting senior midfield trio of William Perry, Justin Anderson and Tanner Cook has combined for 55 goals this season.
“When you come to Carolina, you come to win a national championship,” Anderson said. “And we felt as though last year, that was taken away from us.”
UNC's experienced core has blended seamlessly with the new talent this season, namely with first-year goalkeeper Collin Krieg, who has earned ACC and national honors protecting UNC’s net.
In the first six nonconference games, UNC played its brand of lacrosse, keeping offense efficient and shutting out just about every opponent. In their third matchup against High Point in early April, the Tar Heels scored 27 goals — the most goals the team has put on the board in two decades.
The Tar Heels continued their impressive run into their first ACC matchup against Virginia, which they won, 16-13, thanks to Krieg notching a career-high 20 saves.
“It was very exciting, I mean, our first ACC game as a group, and for a lot of the guys on the team, the first ACC game in general,” Krieg said. “I think we were all just zoned in and fired up.”
Three weeks after the big win, the Tar Heels traveled down Tobacco Road to face their second ACC opponent of the year: No. 1-ranked Duke. The teams played loose and fast the first three quarters, with Duke answering every goal North Carolina scored.
But in sudden-death overtime, Duke rocketed the ball past Krieg for the 12-11 win.
“Losing isn’t always the worst thing, if you can learn from it,” Krieg said.
The Tar Heels walked onto Dorrance Field the next Saturday, hoping to get back in the win column in their rematch against Virginia. The improvement of their overall shooting, holding a 51-44 shot advantage over the Cavaliers, wasn’t enough.
With Virginia’s 5-on-5 approach, the Cavaliers scored four unanswered goals at the end of the third quarter, then won all but one faceoff in the fourth. They beat the Tar Heels, 18-16, sending them back to Chapel Hill with a two-game losing streak.
“That game was chaotic, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of nontraditional things, and they beat us in a nontraditional game today,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “We beat them a month ago in the same type of scheme, so for us, we didn’t handle some of those situations well.”
These two losses have one common denominator: the Atlantic Coast Conference. In the Inside Lacrosse Division I rankings, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina have battled all season within the top 10.
North Carolina’s schedule now only contains matchups against those teams, as bouts with Syracuse, Notre Dame and Duke will close out the regular season.
“The ACC is tough,” Breschi said. “Everybody’s in the top 10 and talented, and we’ve got to work on getting better as we go up to Syracuse next weekend.”
For North Carolina, the crucial factor to win these games is the face-off advantage. The Tar Heels have not won the majority of the games they've played against ACC opponents, and it shows in their possession time.
After improving their face-off odds, the Tar Heels will need to improve on their ground ball work, clearing on defense and ball security. Competing against some of the best shooting teams in the nation, UNC will need to uphold its matchups and keep its opponents from getting inside the perimeter for easy shots.
Only then will the Tar Heels start to improve their 1-2 conference record.
“We know the ACC is just jam-packed with talent,” Breschi said. “It’s fun to watch, it’s great for the sport, it just showcases the talent that teams have.”