The No. 2 North Carolina field hockey team will kick off the 2022 season on Friday at the ACC-Big Ten Challenge with a matchup against No. 3 Michigan, followed by a match against No. 5 Iowa to cap off the weekend on Sunday.
The Tar Heels are no strangers to facing these high-level opponents in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
UNC opened the 2018 and 2019 seasons against both opponents and picked up two wins to open its road to back-to-back championships. However, the Tar Heels lost both games last year and later lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
UNC's performance against Michigan and Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge has proven essential to their success. If the Tar Heels want to make a run for a national championship this season, they must find a way to win in Winston-Salem this weekend.
UNC has had no problem adding some top recruits to their team, bringing in seven first-years to its 27-player roster.
First-year midfielder and forward Molly Catchpole earned all-state honors, finishing last season as a top-5 scorer in the state of New Jersey. Joining her are former WC Eagles teammates Ryleigh Heck and Ashley Sessa, members of the 2022-2023 U.S. National Team who head coach Karen Shelton called "the top two freshmen in the nation" earlier this month.
The Tar Heels lost several essential forwards and midfielders when their season ended prematurely last fall, including second-team All-American Eva Smolenaars and 2021-2022 U.S. National Team member Cassie Sumfest.
Last season’s seniors finished their UNC field hockey careers with three NCAA titles, so Catchpole, Heck and the other first-years will have big shoes to step into. Utilizing these players will be essential to finding success in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and beyond.
Learning from previous losses
The Michigan matchup will be the first game of the year for a hungry UNC team looking to avenge its first-round post-season loss in 2021 to Northwestern. Having not played a regular season game since November, the Tar Heels will be desperate to pull off a win over the Wolverines on Friday.
The game will also be Michigan's first match of the season, so the Wolverines will likely come into the contest with an added hunger after a shootout loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. However, North Carolina has one thing that Michigan is lacking — significant exhibition experience.
In UNC's most recent exhibition match, fifth-year star Erin Matson recorded a hat trick, sophomore goalkeeper Abigail Taylor and first-year Kylie Walbert split time in the goal and a renewed defensive structure shone through in a dominating win over Duke.
UNC’s preseason has been a busy one, with three exhibition games, two of which were on the road. Conversely, both Michigan and Iowa have had only one scrimmage each to prepare for the regular season. In order to pull off wins against these other top-ranked teams, the Tar Heels must focus on the lessons they have learned in exhibitions and use these lessons to have a dominant performance.
After the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Tar Heels will return to Chapel Hill for the ACC-Ivy Challenge. In order to come back with two wins under their belt, North Carolina must utilize their new talent and lessons learned in the preseason.
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