As the North Carolina women's lacrosse team took the field at US Lacrosse Headquarters in Sparks, Md. against Team USA, the players were eye-to-eye with many familiar faces.
The two championship teams squared off against each other for a showcase game at the Fall Classic last Saturday, which culminated in Team USA's 13-7 victory over UNC. But despite the high level of play, there was no animosity between the opponents — instead, a sense of camaraderie was evident from the start of the game.
“It was a really special experience,” UNC junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger said. “A lot of us were joking it felt like an alumni game almost because so many of our alumni were on Team USA.”
Nine former Tar Heels, including UNC assistant coach Marie McCool and current senior midfielder Olivia Dirks, made up almost half of Team USA’s 19-person roster. Head coach Jenny Levy is also the lead figure for both teams.
“Having the opportunity to play for Team USA is always a fun one, but especially against your former team and a team that you now coach," McCool said. "It was a really, really cool opportunity and just to watch how our players responded to playing against some of the best players in the world was really exciting.”
After graduating a core of veteran leaders that helped the team win the 2022 national championship, there might have been significant rumblings about UNC's potential drop-off in performance. The Fall Classic was the first chance for many of the new players on the 2023 roster to test themselves, which produced immediate results.
“We have a lot of new faces out there and so I think what an incredible experience for them,” McCool said. “You saw a lot of freshmen on the field on Saturday being able to step on the field with some of the reigning world champs and best players in the world.”
The game got off to a quick start, as Team USA midfielder Ally Kennedy scored within the first minute. Shortly after, Team USA added another goal to extend its lead.
After being caught off guard at the start, UNC was able to regain its composure and inch closer to tying up the game. This was largely due to an aggressive offensive effort on behalf of Wurzburger, who ended the game with a hat trick, as well as a standout defensive performance from sophomore goalkeeper Alecia Nicholas.
Nicholas, who only played sparingly as a backup last season, registered an impressive eight saves against Team USA's potent group of attackers.
This year, she'll look to fill the shoes of her predecessor and mentor Taylor Moreno, who was protecting the USA goal across the field.
“I watched UNC growing up and I watched a lot of these players when I was younger, so being able to be on the opposite end of the field from them and competing against them was awesome,” Nicholas said. “Stepping into it I felt confident because I had (Moreno) and all these other people supporting me.”
UNC put in a coordinated effort in the third quarter, holding Team USA scoreless while putting two points on the board. The period was defined by the Tar Heels' ability to feed each other passes, which was aided by moving without the ball.
“It just goes to show that we’re really forming those connections on the field,” Wurzburger said.
Despite the brief run of success, the momentum swung back in Team USA's favor at the beginning of the fourth quarter, as attacker Charlotte North scored four goals in the 15-minute period. Still, the Tar Heels made a final offensive push that resulted in Wurzburger finding the back of the net one last time.
“I really liked our mentality against them,” Levy said. “It didn't matter what grade, what age the player at UNC was, I thought we played with a lot of competitive fire and self-belief.”
With its strong showing despite the final outcome, UNC has assuaged the fears of a potential drop-off in performance going into the spring season. But this year's team is still hungry to prove themselves as top competitors in the world of college lacrosse.
“Big picture, we want to compete for the NCAA championship, we wanna compete for the ACC championship, but as of right now, really our goal is to just mesh as a team” Nicholas said.
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