Any follower of North Carolina athletics is probably aware that the school's field hockey team is pretty good.
OK, really good.
The program has won back-to-back national championships, has the winningest coach in college field hockey history and recently took its fourth ACC title in a row. But despite these accolades, the Tar Heels still have to navigate through a challenging stretch of opponents in their postseason play.
On Sunday, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels did exactly that with a 2-0 win over Stanford.
Despite being unbeaten in the spring season, UNC looked vulnerable in its last four matchups and needed overtime periods to keep its winning streak intact. Against Virginia and Syracuse, the Tar Heels were outshot and out-cornered. They edged Wake Forest in those departments in the ACC automatic qualifier game but only capitalized to score on one corner.
Head coach Karen Shelton knew limiting Stanford’s penalty corners in the NCAA quarterfinal was the key strategy in avoiding more overtime play.
“I thought it was critical to the game and for our success; we needed to stop the penalty corner,” Shelton said. “(Stanford's) Corinne Zanolli is an outstanding player all the way around, but her drag flick on the penalty corner is lethal. We knew if we gave up a lot of corners, we would be facing an extreme threat.”
The Tar Heels stuck to their strategy in the first half, allowing Stanford no penalty corners, while racking up three for themselves. The last corner, inserted by sophomore midfielder Paityn Wirth, was shot clean to the back of the cage by redshirt junior back Cassie Sumfest for UNC’s first goal of the day.
North Carolina’s continued pressure left the Cardinal scrambling to build plays after passing their midline which resulted in a scoreless third quarter. In the fourth, UNC continued its offensive persistence with five total shots on goal, and with just three minutes left, junior forward Erin Matson corralled a rebound and sealed the win with a closing goal into the top corner of the net.
“I think we made a huge emphasis to just put a lot of pressure on them,” Sumfest said. “That was a huge success for us on getting corners, getting goals and getting outcomes.”
After briefly celebrating their win, the Tar Heels did something a bit unusual — they joined in one big huddle with the opposing team.
In the fall, Stanford will cut 11 of its 36 varsity sports programs because of budget ramifications from the pandemic — field hockey included.
“They’re fighting and scratching to keep their program intact,” Shelton said. “It would be a shame for a program that strong, that competitive to have its program dropped.”
Shelton and the players have shown their support for the Cardinal behind the scenes by signing petitions, interacting with social media posts and even writing and signing a letter to send to Stanford’s athletic director.
“At the end of the day, you know, we came out on top and we’re proud with how we played and we got the W, but it’s not just about Stanford-UNC,” Matson said. “It’s about field hockey in general and us trying to grow it in America. I think we made it clear to them that we’re all a family and it’s not even just the two of our teams, it’s the field hockey community coming together.”
North Carolina will face Iowa on Friday in the semifinals and potentially the winner of the Michigan-Louisville game in the NCAA Championship.
The Tar Heels have not faced Iowa or Michigan since they beat both programs in the 2019 ACC-Big Ten Challenge and Iowa again in the second round of the NCAA Tournament the same year. Louisville is the only team to have beaten UNC since 2017, which happened on Oct. 2.
North Carolina's remaining path to the championship will take place exclusively in Shelton Stadium, where the team has yet to lose a game since it opened in 2018.
“We’re really excited to be hosting, so like obviously we want to be in that national championship game, but we can’t get there unless we win on Friday,” Sumfest said. “Just focusing on playing our game, keeping it simple and fighting is really important.”
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