In a matchup between two undefeated teams and a defense full of experience, a first-year player who was cut from her under-17 team would make the difference for North Carolina women’s lacrosse.
Entering the last minute of the regular season matchup on March 20, only one goal separated No. 2 North Carolina from No. 1 Boston College, playing in front of an uproarious home crowd.
UNC defender Brooklyn Walker-Welch stood near the eight-meter arc constantly switching her gaze back and forth between the player she was guarding, midfielder Kayla Martello, and dangerous Boston College attacker Charlotte North.
North, cradling the ball in her pocket, glided past fifth-year defender Emma Trenchard and got a clear view of the goal.
As time ticked down on the game clock, the only thing between North and the goal was Walker-Welch, who positioned herself right in front of the two-time Tewaaraton winner. With nowhere else to go, North attempted to run over her and lost the ball to the Tar Heels.
With the caused turnover, Walker-Welch helped hand the Eagles their first loss of the season.
It was a season-defining moment for the Ontario, Canada, native who just five years ago didn’t even know the rules of girls' field lacrosse.
‘I’m not playing with girls’
At four years old, Walker-Welch was first introduced to lacrosse — boys' box lacrosse, that is.
She didn’t even start playing girls' lacrosse until 2017, and even then she had to be convinced to play it.
“At first, she did not want to play girls," Walker-Welch’s former coach Troyhann Santos said. "She was like, ‘I’m not wearing that stupid kilt, I’m not playing with girls, it’s too slow for me.' (I told her that) your career isn’t going to go far playing with boys, you’re going to have to transition over. It took a while to convince her to do it.”
Eventually, Walker-Welch gave in and traded in the deep-pocketed mesh of a boys' stick for the tightly strung girls' stick.
Her mother pushed her to try out for a highly-competitive team in Canada called Team Ontario, a girls' U-17 team.
Quickly, Walker-Welch got a rude awakening to just how different the girls’ game was from the boys’ game. The abrupt switch to girls' lacrosse didn’t give her much time to adapt to this “new” game.
During the tryout for Team Ontario, Walker-Welch missed passes and was unable to throw the ball due to her inexperience with the girls’ stick.
“I remember my first time out there I kept on getting yellow and red cards because I would always cross-check them, because that’s what we mostly did in box lacrosse,” Walker-Welch said. “It took time to realize that you have to remain calmer and not go for the check but let them come to you.”
Unsurprisingly, Walker-Welch didn’t make the team.
“That was the biggest eye-opener I’ve ever gotten,” she said. “This is where I want my team to be. I just got cut, so I needed to put more time and effort and skill into developing who I was as a lacrosse player on the girls' field to be the best.”
Walker-Welch dedicated herself to learning the mechanics of the game, and soon she was playing on a top girls' team at The Hill Academy, a prestigious school for young athletes in Ontario.
“She always had the skill, but her ability to play with the girls' stick has definitely improved, and her ability to know the rules to the game, because that’s all she needed to know,” Santos said. “She had everything else. It was just playing girls' field lacrosse.”
In 2019, she competed with the Canadian Women’s U19 Field Lacrosse Team in the 2019 World Cup. As her list of accomplishments grew, Walker-Welch attracted the attention of women’s lacrosse coaches at some of the top college programs in the United States.
‘This kid’s special’
On a rainy day in Syracuse, N.Y., North Carolina women’s lacrosse head coach Jenny Levy found her future defensive starter.
Now a junior in high school, Walker-Welch made the trip south from Canada to attend a camp that Levy had been running for more than 25 years. The camp was supposed to happen outdoors, but with the downpour of rain, it just wasn’t possible for them to play outside.
At the very last minute, an indoor facility was found for the clinic, and Walker-Welch made the best of her opportunity to impress Levy and the rest of the UNC coaching staff.
“We walked away and we were like, ‘This kid’s special, she’s gonna be great',” Levy said. “We didn’t know exactly that she was going to make the U19 team. We didn’t know that she was going to end up a defender. But over the next two years, she became the player that she was before she came to Carolina.”
Eventually, Walker-Welch committed to the Tar Heels and made the decision to move over 800 miles south from her hometown of Courtice, Ontario, to Chapel Hill.
But why would she decide to go so far away from her home when there were plenty of other esteemed lacrosse programs closer?
“I wanted to go somewhere different that not many Canadians had gone to,” Walker-Welch said. “I wanted to be away from the normal schools that were close to home. I just wanted to be my own person and get a fresh start away from Canada.”
Not only that, but Walker-Welch grew up watching Tar Heels greats like Marie McCool and Kayla Wood, and she incorporated their style of play into her own game.
Entering her first year, Walker-Welch said she was worried that she wouldn’t get playing time. However, when the season began, she was starting on defense with the likes of All-Americans Taylor Moreno and Trenchard.
Just like her transition from box to field lacrosse, she didn’t get there without putting in a little extra effort. With that extra effort came success at the end of her first year, including winning UNC’s first national championship since 2016 and making the ACC All-Freshman team.
If Walker-Welch didn’t know the rules of girls' field lacrosse five years ago, how did she get to start on a star-studded UNC team and win a national championship in the process?
If you ask anybody that knows her, they’d all give you the same answer — her work ethic.
“She’s just super tough, super gritty, she’s such a hard worker,” fellow first-year player Sam Forrest said. “We’ll be done with practice, and she’ll be wanting to go on another run. It shows how hard she works and that her hard work pays off."