North Carolina field hockey head coach Karen Shelton calls herself "a bit of a poker player," and for her team, every season is just like another game of Texas Hold ’em.
The team plays with the cards they’re dealt, and for the past several years, the Tar Heels won the pot to the tune of a 65-1 record and three straight national championships. During the team’s 2021 campaign, though, UNC was given an unlucky hand.
With nine away games — compared to only six in its extended COVID-19 season last year — and an inexperienced defense, UNC struggled this season, which crushed its chances of earning a fourth consecutive NCAA title.
Coming off the high of winning the national title at Karen Shelton Stadium in May, the Tar Heels entered the new season ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll. But after playing two of its Final Four opponents in a season-opening tournament, UNC dropped its first two games to give the team its worst start since 1992.
UNC continued to struggle in the backfield, giving up 31 points on the regular season and suffering four additional losses — two that left UNC scoreless. North Carolina’s rankings dipped to No. 10 by week six, which gave the team a more difficult draw in the ACC Tournament.
“If we had done better in the beginning of the year, we might have had a better draw,” Shelton said. “So we had to play the hand we were dealt.”
Instead of getting a bye for the quarterfinals — like the team had done each year since 2018 — the Tar Heels had to fight through three straight days of field hockey en route to another ACC championship.
But playing for three straight days combined with flight delays left them exhausted and ill-prepared for the NCAA tournament only five days after.
“We definitely did have a target on our backs,” senior forward Meredith Sholder said. “When the (NCAA Tournament) bracket came out, the announcer was like, ‘Can North Carolina be taken out?’ So it definitely was all eyes on us.”
The first round tournament bout against Northwestern saw snow and a tough defensive battle for the Tar Heels. North Carolina endured three quarters of field hockey before the defense folded in the fourth and the Wildcats tapped in a shot with less than 12 minutes left in the game.
Desperate to score, UNC then pulled the keeper in favor of an extra field player. In its last three games, however, the strategy was unsuccessful, and this trend continued against Northwestern.
“I just feel like (an empty net) is worth the gamble,” Shelton said. “We don't give up many shots on goal and so if you are down, it's usually a safe bet.”
Even with an extra player in the Wildcats’ scoring third, UNC shot two balls unsuccessfully and Northwestern fired into the open cage with just three minutes left in regulation.
And just like that, the odds of UNC advancing to the second round of the tournament vanished. Just over a week later, Northwestern lifted the championship trophy UNC was so accustomed to holding.
The Tar Heels didn’t play their cards right this season; in attempts to adjust to a normal season after COVID-19, the extra travel, cold weather, bad rankings and different defensive dynamics took a toll on the team.
With the offseason officially in place, the athletes will get to experience a more typical spring that should help the team fully recover for 2022.
“I think we're going to be really focused on increasing strength and increasing fitness,” first-year goalkeeper Abigail Taylor said. “We're not gonna have as rigorous of a travel schedule so we can just focus on the game.”
This period of recuperation — along with returning three of the four of its senior starters and adding recruits that pose offensive threats — leaves UNC with a full house.
So, come next year, the cards, the odds and luck might be in UNC's favor.
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