The North Carolina women’s lacrosse team seemed untouchable last season, obliterating its first 14 opponents with few issues, winning those games by an average margin of 10.7 goals.
But as the Tar Heels entered their final regular-season game against No. 7 ranked Duke in Durham, they suddenly looked more beatable.
Star attacker Jamie Ortega — who became the program’s all-time goals leader earlier in the season — was out with an injury after taking a hard fall in the previous victory against Virginia. It was the senior’s first missed game of her career.
Enter Caitlyn Wurzburger.
The talented first-year had been the first option off the bench all season, and she was on a hot streak after racking up eight goals and six assists in her previous three games. Giving Wurzburger her first career start in place of Ortega was the obvious choice for head coach Jenny Levy.
“There was no discussion in the office like, ‘Who's playing instead of Jamie?’” Levy said. “It was, ‘Caitlyn's gonna step into a role that she's worked all season to be in.’”
Wurzburger stepped into the role — and thrived in it.
Thirty seconds into the game, Wurzburger, with the ball in her pocket, had positioned herself directly behind the Duke goal. With a sidestep to the right and a hard cut to the goal, Wurzburger blew by her defender and slung the ball into the top corner of the net for the first score of the game.
From there, Wurzburger exploded. She scored or assisted on four of the team’s next six goals, and UNC went into the half up 8-3.
When it was all said and done, the Tar Heels came out on top 12-11. Senior Ally Mastroianni scored the game-winner with 17 seconds remaining, but it was Wurzburger who led the way for the offense with five goals and an assist.
“I just was in lucky positions, honestly,” Wurzburger said of her performance. “Everything just flowed right that game, and I felt like I knew I had to step up because we were losing our star player.”
But the star player Wurzburger was filling in for didn’t see the performance as just luck. Ortega soaked it in from the sidelines as she watched the future leader of the offense come into her own, dominating in her first-ever start.
“I knew that she was going to have a good game before the game,” Ortega said. “And then on the sidelines watching her cut and score, dive and make these great plays, kind of lead our offense — It was a great moment because I’m gone after this year, and this is going to be her offense, so it's great seeing her at such a young age taking that role and the responsibility.”
'The best eighth grader I ever saw'
As a high school prospect, Wurzburger was far from a hidden gem for the Tar Heels. In fact, she was the highest-profile recruit in the history of women’s lacrosse.
Wurzburger joined the varsity team at the American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Fla., when she was in seventh grade. At the age of 14, she made headlines when she verbally committed to play at Syracuse University.
“I do remember when I first heard about her, because it was big news that an eighth grader had committed to Syracuse,” Levy said. “We were like, ‘An eighth grader committed to Syracuse, like, what is that?’ So we were all really shocked about just what was going on in the landscape of recruiting at that point.”
Levy first saw Wurzburger play when her team would come to summer lacrosse events hosted in Chapel Hill.
“She was the best eighth grader I ever saw,” Levy said. “And she just knew how to play the game. She played at a really good pace, very creative and also very efficient and effective.”
Wurzburger starred at the American Heritage School for six seasons.
Before her, no high schooler had ever scored 100 goals and 100 assists in a season. Wurzburger accomplished the feat four times.
“She facilitates, she feeds and she finishes, which is a little unique,” Levy said. “Not everybody has that ability.”
She was not only unique in her skillset, but also her location — Wurzburger is one of the few members of UNC’s roster who hail from the South.
“(Florida’s) not a traditional hotbed for lacrosse,” Wurzburger said. “I was lucky to be coached by my dad, who played lacrosse a lot, and my other coaches. Me and my friends were lucky to be coached by people who knew the game really well.”
According to NCAA rules, coaches aren’t allowed to contact women’s lacrosse recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. These rules were put in place in 2017 — after Wurzburger had already committed to Syracuse.
When September of Wurzburger’s junior year rolled around, she received a call from Levy.
“When the recruiting process for her age group opened, we thought we’d just give her a call to say, ‘Hey, if you want to open your process, we'd be interested in talking to you.’” Levy said.
Shortly after, Wurzburger decided to decommit from Syracuse and open her recruiting process back up to other schools.
Ortega remembers accompanying Wurzburger and her family on her first official visit to Chapel Hill.
“She had a visit to UNC and I took her out to dinner with some of the coaches, parents, other members of the team, and we all went to (the Yogurt Pump),” Ortega said. “Not to brag, but I feel like maybe I sold her on UNC, you know?”
‘This is just lacrosse'
Transitioning to the college game isn’t easy for anyone, not even the greatest high school player of all time.
That rang especially true at UNC, where Wurzburger was joining an attack squad that returned all of its starters, including two of the best players in the nation. Ortega and her counterpart, Katie Hoeg, were named co-national players of the year by Inside Lacrosse in 2020.
Hoeg, a year older than Ortega, was originally supposed to graduate in 2020 but was afforded another year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the pandemic.
So, overflowing with talent but with no starting position available, Wurzburger was relegated to the bench.
“In my situation, I was used to being on the field a lot," Wurzburger said. "And this year, I wasn't as much just because it's college, you know? It's a really high level and we have a really old squad. I mean, I had Katie Hoeg and Jamie and Scottie (Rose Growney) and Tayler (Warehime) in front of me. I could watch and see how they were mentally and physically, at practice and on the field.”
Wurzburger stumbled in her first game with the Tar Heels.
Playing against a Stony Brook team that was ranked No. 6 in the nation, Wurzburger had no points and committed three turnovers. What would have been her first career goal was called off after she received a yellow card for a dangerous follow-through.
But she earned her true first career goal and assist in the following game against Florida, and two days later, she scored three goals against High Point.
“I think when you get on the field you're like, ‘Whoa, I'm wearing a Carolina jersey, this is unreal,’” Wurzburger said. “But once you get the ball in your stick, you're just like, ‘This is just lacrosse, just like I've done every single day.’”
By April, Wurzburger had hit her stride. She was often the first substitute in games, coming in as an attacking midfielder.
She went six straight games with at least two goals and an assist, starting with Notre Dame on April 10.
“I think that role change is hard for anybody, and Caitlyn did a great job adapting to the role change,” Levy said. “In how we run our team, we don't necessarily see it as starters and non-starters, because she was a really big part of what we were doing on game days this year.”
Wurzburger was named to the ACC All-Freshman team, ending the season with 53 points. In comparison, Hoeg only had 16 points in her first season as a Tar Heel.
“Caitlyn comes in and has a 50- or 60-point season as a freshman, and with the group that we had, that's amazing,” Levy said. “That's a really incredible freshman year.”
'Big shoes to fill'
As any player or coach will tell you, no one player can create a successful attack. The key to a good offense all boils down to chemistry.
For the past few seasons, Hoeg has served as the yin to Ortega’s yang. While Ortega is the all-time goals leader, Hoeg holds the record for career assists. And those two were supported by two more excellent attackers in Growney and Warehime.
Not only did that unit work well together on the field, they were also close friends off it.
UNC’s offense will undergo big changes next season with Hoeg having graduated, and all signs point to Wurzburger as the one who will claim her starting spot.
“It's gonna be a big hole and big shoes to fill, because Hoegie’s been here for five years and has made history and done great things with the chemistry in our attack,” Wurzburger said. So I just hope to really continue that chemistry. She's built that foundation for the attackers at UNC.”
As Wurzburger is tasked with stepping up into a bigger role next year, she will also be asked to go from being a listener to more of a leader on the team.
Levy said she expects that to come naturally, and emphasized that good leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the loudest presence in the locker room.
“Our attacking unit, they're not loud people. Our attack unit is quiet, humble, but fiercely competitive,” Levy said. “I think because they're quiet and they're humble, the mistake is (thinking) that maybe they're not as much of a killer. And that's far from the truth. Caitlyn, she's a killer. She wants to win at the very highest level, and she holds herself to that standard.”
Ending an otherwise incredible season with a heartbreaking loss to eventual champion Boston College in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, there will be a lot of pressure on UNC to recapture the magic.
But as Wurzburger will be glad to tell you, she loves pressure.
“It's always good to start a season with a loss,” she said. “We don't have a target on our back anymore, so we can come in as underdogs. I think my only thing is to win a national championship.”
A national championship is a lofty goal for a team that just graduated one of the greatest players in its 27-year history, but Wurzburger doesn’t seem too worried.
Neither does Ortega, who is using her extra season of eligibility next year.
“I think she’s going to have a field day next year being in that spot,” Ortega said. “I trust her with the ball, I trust her decisions, she has a great IQ, she’s a smart player and I think next year she’s going to be even better. Even more people are going to have their heads turned when they watch her play.”