On Friday, in its 2022 season opener against the Richmond Spiders, UNC men’s lacrosse had all the tools needed to ensure a blowout win.
The Tar Heels came into this season ranked No. 6 in the nation. All three starting attackers, Chris Gray, Jacob Kelly and Nicky Solomon, are returning players from the 2021 season. So is sophomore goalkeeper Collin Krieg, who started in all 16 games as a true first-year last season.
With Gray being named USA Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Player of the Year, and the veteran experience from Kelly and Solomon, UNC came into Friday’s matchup with the offensive firepower necessary for an onslaught of unranked Richmond.
So how did the Spiders lead UNC 6-5 at the half? What allowed Richmond to go on a 7-2 scoring run against such highly-ranked competition? Why were the Tar Heels “nervous” coming into Friday’s game?
It began with the number six.
This year, UNC is without six of the team’s top-eight midfielders from last season. Coming into Friday’s matchup against the Richmond Spiders, six out of ten starters for the UNC men’s lacrosse team had never started a game at UNC before. This inexperience was visible in North Carolina’s eventual 13-9 win, which proved to be an overall messy production despite standout performances from returning attackers Gray and Kelly.
“We were pretty sloppy in my opinion and I think the coaches would agree,” Gray, a captain of the team, said.
An overall lack of cohesion, including several defensive mishaps, prevented the Tar Heels from maintaining their early 4-0 lead. After Dalton Young’s goal gave the Spiders their first point of the evening, Richmond went on a 7-2 run that extended well into the third quarter. Several of the goals during this stretch, including two from Richmond’s Ryan Dunn, were at point-blank range, as UNC failed to put a body on Spider attackers cutting directly to the goal. In other cases, Tar Heel defenders were slow to rotate over, as with Dunn’s goal halfway through the third quarter that put Richmond up 8-7.
“We started lifting up too quickly from that backside pipe and they hit a couple down to the left pipe,” defensive midfielder and team captain Connor Maher said. “We also left to slides up top a little early, making our rotations a bit longer and opening up some of those passing lanes.”
While a lack of experience may have allowed the Spiders to slip in, UNC can credit their veteran face-off midfielder, senior Zac Tucci, with pulling them out of their mid-game ditch. Tucci went 10-12 in face-offs in the second half, awarding critical possessions to UNC late in the game.
“It’s totally the face-off,” head coach Joe Breschi said when describing the key factor that allowed his team to turn things around in the second half. “When you’re winning face-offs you can go on runs. And Zac Tucci is today’s MVP for sure.”
With better success in the face-offs during the second half, UNC was able to facilitate a run of its own. With two goals apiece from returners Gray and Kelly, as well as goals from Harrison Schertzinger and Cole Herbert, UNC closed the game on a 6-1 streak, propelling the Tar Heels to their eventual 13-9 win.
Despite the instability at times in Friday’s victory, in the post-game press conference, Breschi was all smiles, describing the win as a “hard-fought, gritty effort.”
“We know we have talent, but it’s kind of unproven,” he said. “You can’t teach experience. You saw some mistakes, some silly passes, some turnovers. We’ll grow from those. At the end of the day you have to take those lumps.”
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