At a crisp 8 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 9, the 2021 UNC field hockey team met on the dewy turf at Karen Shelton Stadium for its first official practice of the season.
As part of a traditional first day workout, the team began with the 30-15 fitness test, a progressive running drill consisting of a 30-second shuttle run followed by a 15-second recovery period.
“The team by-and-large performed very well,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “I’m pleased with the group overall after the first day.”
It’s been only three months since the UNC field hockey team won its third national championship in a row. Instead of using spring to prepare for the upcoming season, the team played six additional regular season games to make up for the COVID-19-shortened season in the fall, giving the Tar Heels only the summer months to prepare for a 2021 slate full of new challenges.
With limited time at their disposal, many players stayed busier than ever. Senior midfielder Eva Smolenaars got connected with USA Field Hockey through UNC graduate Teryn Brill, and she traveled everywhere from Orlando to Virginia Beach to explore the marketing side of her beloved sport.
Junior back Madison Orobono spent her summer training with the U.S. Indoor National team, first prepping for team qualifiers in June, then participating in team training camps in July. She, along with senior forward Erin Matson and junior midfielder Paityn Wirth, flew out Monday to represent the United States in the Junior Pan American Championships.
The trio of Tar Heels will be joined by three other UNC field hockey alumni on the 18-person team. The team also consists of players from North Carolina’s toughest regular season competitors, namely Duke, Princeton and Virginia.
“I'm really excited to be playing with girls from different college teams,” Orobono said. “We are able to talk and become close friends. On the field (playing for UNC), we're all enemies, but off the field it's a whole different dynamic.”
Team USA will begin play on Aug. 21 and will face Trinidad and Tobago and Chile, then fight through crossover games to try to secure a top-three spot in the Junior Hockey World Cup. But the timing of the competition means Matson, Orobono and Wirth will miss the rest of UNC’s preseason and opening weekend.
“When we lose players to the national team, we look at it as a win-win,” Shelton said. “They're going to be getting better at the international level, and we're going to be getting better with more people earning playing time and gaining experience.”
To fill in those gaps, the Tar Heels have welcomed nine new players to the roster, including Northeastern University transfer Alli Meehan and Smolenaars’ sister, Jasmina.
Eva, along with forward Meredith Sholder and back Cassie Sumfest, will bring extra depth to the team by using their extra year of eligibility from COVID-19 to play once more for North Carolina.
“I was in a position to decide whether or not I wanted to take my extra year of eligibility,” Eva said. “And for me, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
The new team will face a longer schedule during its 2021 season, playing all six ACC opponents as well as facing 10 nonconference teams. Compared to the team’s 2020 campaign — which only saw conference opponents, one-game weekends and a majority of home contests — this season will present new challenges for the players.
“We're so used to playing one game a weekend,” Orobono said. “And now we're playing two games a weekend plus travel.”
The team will soon pack its bags for its first contest on Aug. 27 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in Iowa City. UNC’s first two opponents will be Michigan and Iowa — the last two teams it played in the NCAA tournament in the spring.
“Basically a redo of the Final Four,” Eva Smolenaars said.
But brushing past Mary, Prince and Michelle — the team’s past three national championship trophies — in the team lounge reminds the Tar Heels of the legacy they’ve built for themselves and the ultimate end goal at the end of the season: four titles in a row.
As always, though, Shelton and the players plan to stay humble, respect their opponents, develop winning habits and apply them — one game at a time.
“We made history winning the national championship in the spring, winning three in a row,” Shelton said. “It has been done before, several times, but nobody's won four in a row. So you know, it's a motivating thing.”