Even though its season doesn’t officially start until Friday, Feb. 11, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team participated in three exhibition games in January — and it's looking to make the necessary provisions before the season opener.
The Tar Heels played their first exhibition game against Navy in Annapolis, Maryland on Jan. 23. Six days later, the team returned to Chapel Hill to play against Air Force and Mount St. Mary’s in back-to-back exhibition games.
“It was great to play somebody else. I thought we did a decent job, we played everyone who traveled, and everyone came out of the game healthy, which is most important,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “For the young guys, I thought it was a great chance for them to get their feet wet a little bit, and certainly for the older guys, the leadership was solid.”
As one of the senior leaders on the team, defensive midfielder Connor Maher said he was impressed with the poise the team showed, especially because it was its first real test of the season.
“I think we did a good job of coming out there with not just a ton of excitement, but we also came out with a good amount of focus which helped us settle into the game,” Maher said.
Maher played in all 16 games last season with 65 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers. In addition, he scored one goal on five shots with two assists on the offensive side, which helped him earn numerous individual honors.
In the scrimmage against Navy, Maher said he was pleased with how the team executed its riding defense, while also holding the Midshipmen to a low clearing percentage.
"Riding and backing up an aggressive style of play has always been our identity, so it’s nice to be able to come out in our first scrimmage and show that we’re going to be able to do that this year,” he said.
Senior attackman Jacob Kelly reflected on the team's performances against Air Force and Mount St. Mary's and said the attacking unit was building up play quickly and efficiently.
Although the Tar Heels led the nation last season with 16.31 goals per game, Kelly said he believes there is even more room to grow.
“Offensively, we’re flying around and doing really good things," Kelly said. "We’re still building that cohesion and comfortability with each other. All over the field, we’re ready to step it up compared to last year.”
In his junior season, Kelly played in all 16 games and started in 11 of them, finishing with 20 goals, 11 assists, 28 ground balls and four caused turnovers.
After an unusual previous two seasons due to COVID-19 protocols, Kelly said he and his teammates are ready to get back to more normal playing conditions in the coming weeks.
“The scrimmages are great, but there’s nothing like putting on the jersey and playing out there in Kenan (Stadium) or on Dorrance Field," Kelly said. "It’s what I live for, and it’s what the rest of the team lives for. We’re ready to go, and we’re ready to finish the job unlike we did last year."
Entering his 14th year at the helm of the UNC men’s lacrosse program, Breschi has led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament nine times but is still striving for his first national title since 2016.
Although Breschi said the current team is athletic, it is also inexperienced, which makes any preseason action important.
With the season just days away and three bouts against ranked teams looming in the coming weeks, the preparation put forth in the scrimmages seems to have the Tar Heels moving in the right direction.
“We play hard, and that’s why I’m so proud of this group," Breschi said. "Obviously we can do all we want in practice, but until we get into games and are going through it, that kind of experience is going to be so valuable for us.”
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