North Carolina's dynastic field hockey program shocked fans with its 0-2 record to start the season.
Just last season, the team posted a 47-game record-breaking winning streak until it lost to Louisville in the fall. Before that, the Tar Heels had not lost two games in a row since 2013.
But last weekend, after dropping its first two games, North Carolina bumped the record up to 2-2 with a 4-1 win against Princeton and a 9-1 blowout over Penn.
“What we love about the schedule that we've played so far is that it exposes our weaknesses and what areas need to be looked at and refined,” head coach Karen Shelton said.
Those first two matchups weren’t just any games — No. 1 North Carolina played No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And those happened to be the two teams UNC bulldozed in the Final Four last season for its third consecutive national championship.
“We knew that we ended their season last year,” senior forward Meredith Sholder said. “They were going to be out for blood.”
The Tar Heels were less prepared for their season opener than usual with a shortened offseason, only a week of preseason and just one scrimmage under their belts. Unlike Michigan, which returned nearly all of its players, UNC graduated key pieces of its defense, including goalkeeper Amanda Hendry and back Courtnie Williamson.
The Tar Heels showed their youth in the backfield during the game against Michigan. Still shuffling around positions, the players struggled to connect against Michigan’s press in the first half, only registering two shots compared to the Wolverines’ six. North Carolina fought back in the second half but kept missing the kill zone, leaving the final scoreboard 3-2 in Michigan’s favor.
With only one day of turnaround, the Tar Heels played Iowa. UNC's offense proved inconsistent, playing from behind to defend against Iowa’s prepared front field. The team dropped its second game in a row, 3-1.
Back in Chapel Hill, the team returned to its motto: “Play for the person next to you."
During its sports psychology session, the team discussed giving the first-years a voice and confidence on the clock.
“While we’re out there on that field, we work hard for each other,” first-year forward Kennedy Cliggett said. “So one thing that we have all talked about is support for each other.”
To that end, UNC drilled support relief on the pitch, as well as recovery runs and shooting. They also focused on their “intercept mentality” on the defensive end by quickly repositioning themselves to anticipate balls in their defending third.
UNC flew to Princeton on Thursday for its next slew of away games. Along with their training, the Tar Heels found confidence in the massive turnout at both games, as 14 players on the team are from Pennsylvania.
“There were so many people that came to support us, even little girls were coming up to us asking for our autographs and pictures," Sholder said. "It just means so much that we have those people behind us and backing us.”
North Carolina’s first game of the weekend happened to also be Princeton’s season opener, so UNC had no film to watch of the Tigers. Even so, UNC strategically pressed, scoring goals in each of the four quarters with different scorers and blocking all but one of Princeton’s 12 shots.
Finally, after a much-needed win, the Tar Heels got to celebrate before buckling down to prepare for Penn on Sunday.
Against the Quakers, the Tar Heels finally got into their groove. With two-touch, unselfish passing, the Tar Heels netted nine goals — four by senior forward Erin Matson, which totaled 87 goals on her career, smashing the UNC record of 84 goals set in 1997.
Now, after falling to No. 4 in the rankings, the Tar Heels are prepping for another weekend on the road, traveling to Philadelphia to play Saint Joseph’s and Drexel.
Even though it might look like it, winning is not and never has been easy for UNC, despite the NCAA trophies — affectionately named Michelle, Prince and Mary — sitting proudly on their shelves.
These four games have proven that point, and highlight why it’s so important to play tight, fast and for each other.
“I did tell the team, 'Do you want to win the first ones?'” Shelton said. “'Or do you want to win the last ones?'”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.