As the Tar Heels received the first home cheers of the season, they offered a glimpse at the potentially promising season lying ahead.
Friday’s 4-3 victory over Princeton revealed that the North Carolina field hockey team is moving past last season’s underwhelming results. North Carolina’s expectations for this season remain high as head coach Karen Shelton strives to return her team to national prominence this year.
The Tar Heels have a 3-0 record this season, with all wins coming against top-15 opponents. Following Sunday’s comeback win in overtime against Iowa, Friday’s game against Princeton was also decided in the final minutes.
The intense competition UNC is having in these opening games allows the team to grow by learning to deal with pressure in key moments.
“The fact that we’ve played this difficult schedule is very good for us," Shelton said. "I think that we are in a really good place. These kids take what they learn from the previous game. I think that we are better today than what we were last week, and we’ll be better on Sunday.”
North Carolina asserted its dominance by getting on the scoreboard in the opening minutes thanks to a goal from first-year midfielder and forward Ryleigh Heck.
Despite UNC's strong start to the game, Princeton took advantage of North Carolina's defensive mistakes as Tar Heels struggled to defend penalty corners. By halftime, Princeton translated two of three penalty corners into goals.
“It’s a focus point for us," first-year midfielder and back Sietske Brüning said. "Last weekend we struggled as well. I think we need to try to keep them out of the circle to not give any corners away. If that’s not possible, we have to defend clearly, be low and know that they are searching for a corner.”
North Carolina’s problems were not only restricted to the penalty corners.
Even though the Tar Heels maintained possession of the ball for most of the game, the team experienced difficulties getting past Princeton’s tight defense and reaching the opposing goal. They shot ten times, less than half of the shots the team attempted on Sunday against the Hawkeyes.
However, the talent that North Carolina’s team possesses was evident in the conversion of shots the team did attempt. In the first half, UNC translated five shots into three goals. Still, Shelton emphasized that her team did not earn a penalty corner until the final period.
“We have kids that love to score and are really good at it, but they get goal-focused," Shelton said. "I think that we can get a little bit smarter and earn penalty corners when we get the opportunity. I think we just forgot about that and went blindly to the goal.”
North Carolina has a long season ahead of itself to integrate every team member and create a unified front. One of the biggest focuses of the team this season has been integrating the incoming first-years into UNC’s way of play.
“We’re continuing to plan team bonding activities to help our cohesion and chemistry,” senior forward and midfielder Meredith Sholder said. “I think it’s important to constantly check up on the first-years and reach out.”
UNC's first-year players are receiving a lot of minutes early this season. Four first-years have earned starts so far this season, with many others receiving valuable playing time. Their connection with the team’s veterans will be a key factor in the Tar Heels’ success this season.
“It’s all about playing what you see and not making things too complicated,” senior forward Erin Matson said. “I think we’re doing well with that so far.”
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