An incredible season ended in heartbreak last year for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team.
After being down 9-4 at halftime, the No. 1 seed Tar Heels came up just short of a comeback to future champion Virginia in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, losing 12-11.
With the team’s first exhibition of the season slated for Saturday against Navy, head coach Joe Breschi and his squad are ready to embark on a revitalized 2022 campaign.
Senior defensive midfielder Connor Maher said his teammates have internalized that loss to Virginia, using it as motivation throughout the offseason. This weekend, the team will take that pent-up energy to Annapolis when they play the Midshipmen.
“Getting so close and then losing it right at the end, it just gives that extra drive,” Maher said. “We have our first scrimmage this weekend, and I think the energy around the team is just a little bit different.”
UNC will have a favorable seven-game home stretch to start the season, beginning with the opener against Richmond on Feb. 11 and ending with a matchup against preseason No. 1 Virginia. Those games won’t be gimmes, though. UNC will face formidable opponents in Ohio State, No. 15 Johns Hopkins and No. 12 Denver.
“I really feel like we will (improve) as we gain that experience early in February and then into March and then opening with our first 8 p.m. on a Thursday night against UVa.,” Breschi said. “It'll be the first ACC game, so it should be a huge crowd, but hopefully by then, we’ll know who the heck we are.”
The back half of the season will be the typical meat grinder of conference play. All five ACC programs are ranked in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Preseason Poll, and three — Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame — are ranked in the top five. UNC is right on the heels of those programs, coming in at No. 6.
Three of UNC's final four games of the regular season are away, with the Tar Heels making stops in Charlottesville, South Bend and Durham.
Luckily for the Tar Heels, the team is returning a solid group of seniors, fifth-years and graduate students who are well accustomed to big-time games. Perhaps most notable among those veterans is attacker Chris Gray, who is returning for his graduate season.
Gray cemented his superstar status last year after recording 49 goals and 42 assists, setting the program record for points in a season. He was named the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and a Tewaaraton Award finalist. He also comes into this season as the USA Lacrosse Preseason Player of the Year.
Gray, alongside seniors Jacob Kelly and Nicky Solomon, comprise a seasoned attack unit that should be one of the best in the country.
On the other hand, the defense and the midfield have experienced more of a shakeup since last year, losing players such as midfielder Will Perry and defenseman Will Bowen. Six of the team’s top-eight midfielders from last season have graduated, and Breschi said he’ll look to his 11-man class of first-years to fill those holes.
“We’ve got a ton of potential, but a ton of inexperience too,” Breschi said. “So to have that attack unit, and (sophomore goalkeeper) Collin Krieg, and then the defensive midfield unit that's back, that's where you're gonna rely on your experience to help you with some of the new guys.”
So, what are the team's aspirations for this year?
As Maher said, “it’s always national championship” when you’re at UNC. But Breschi and his staff preach a one-moment-at-a-time approach, and right now what the team is worried about is its exhibition against Navy.
This first trip, weather permitting, will be the first litmus test of how well UNC’s new roster has gelled since that narrow loss to the Cavaliers.
“In the scrimmage coming up, it's going to be a little bit of a challenge,” Krieg said. “We're going to have a five-hour bus ride up to Annapolis. We're gonna have to get off, play, get back on the bus and come back. So, you know, any time a team has to go through something like that, it really shows a little bit of what they're made of.”
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