The UNC field hockey team required every single segment of the roster to fight back against Virginia's high press in order to secure a 3-1 win on Friday.
The Cavaliers' pressure only allowed UNC to take 13 shots in regulation, just above the team's season-low 10 shots against Princeton on Sept. 2.
Head coach Karen Shelton said Virginia was the toughest team the Tar Heels have faced so far.
“I thought it was probably the most strategic and tactical game that we played all year, so I’m proud of our Heels,” she said.
Just over a minute into the first period, the Cavaliers put up a shot and drew a penalty corner, but sophomore goalkeeper Abigail Taylor thwarted this scoring attempt.
Taylor, who usually swaps with first-year goalkeeper Kylie Walbert, played the entire game since Walbert was suffering from a hamstring-related injury. She tallied a season-high four saves during regulation and only allowed one goal, which came off a penalty corner in the first half.
Taylor said she relied on communication with the defense to get in position to shut down the Virginia offense.
“Most important (thing) to me, when I'm in a corner or taking a shot, is just keep your eye on the ball, stay focused and do the things that you know how to do – trust yourself,” she said. “Not try (to) get distracted.”
Because Virginia’s team closed off spaces of the field that UNC typically relies on to move the ball upfield, UNC’s midfield and backfield had to stay on the move and work off each other’s positioning. Virginia kept the ball on North Carolina's defensive side for most of the game, preventing the Tar Heels from hitting large passes to move the ball more quickly upfield.
Senior forward Meredith Sholder said the team focused on the small game to solve this, using short passes to move out of the high press.
“Not looking at it as the whole entire field, but looking at it as like, ‘Okay, I see a two v. one that we can use right here,’” she said. “So let's try and work together to get this ball out of this small space."
The final piece of the puzzle was UNC’s offense led by first-year midfielder Sietske Brüning and senior forward Erin Matson.
The first UNC goal was put away in the sixth minute by Brüning while Matson was absent from the field being treated for a head injury.
When Matson returned, she scored UNC’s second goal of the night by cleanly sneaking the ball into the bottom left corner of the cage during a penalty stroke.
“(Matson) leads the press — she leads scoring, she assists and she passes,” Shelton said. “She gets it all."
Matson wasn't done yet though, scoring in the 30th minute to put UNC up 3-1. Sneaking around the side of the Virginia goalkeeper, Matson placed the ball into the bottom left corner once again.
With the victory, the Tar Heels remained undefeated and clinched the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament, which starts on Nov. 1.
Before that though, the team must face Saint Joseph's and Duke to close out the regular season. The cohesion that the offense, midfield and defense showed on Sunday will be required going forward.
“(Virginia) gave us a lot to handle,” Shelton said. “So I thought that it was a great challenge for us. And of course, we're gonna turn around and play another top-ten team on Sunday. So for us, this is preparation.”
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