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Penalty corner goal sets UNC field hockey up for national championship victory

UNC first-year forward/midfield Ashley Sessa (3) shoots the ball during the NCAA Field Hockey Championship game against Northwestern in Storrs, Conn. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. UNC beat Northwestern 2-1.

STORRS, Conn.— The North Carolina penalty corner has been a work in progress.

UNC has only scored on 20 of its 145 penalty corners this season. The Tar Heels rank first in the nation in scoring average and scoring margin, but their penalty corner production isn’t even in the top 20.

On Sunday, in the NCAA title game, the Tar Heels got a penalty corner when they needed it most thanks to their trick play "tunnel".

Two minutes into the second quarter, senior forward Erin Matson drew a penalty corner on the right side of the cage. As per usual, first-year midfielder Ashley Sessa jogged to the baseline to set up the Tar Heels’ second penalty corner in two minutes. 

Sessa pushed it in to senior back Romea Riccardo. Riccardo had the stick-stop and passed it to first-year back Sietske Brüning. Brüning, with first-year forward Ryleigh Heck waiting on the penalty stroke marker, sent it down the middle, and Heck deflected the ball high into the goal. This gave the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead that set the momentum for most of the matchup.

“Me and Sietske have a connection on corners,” Heck said. “Practice makes it better in games, and it was successful today. Thank God.”

The "tunnel" play was first seen in North Carolina's ACC Championship semifinal game against Syracuse and then was put on display two days later in the ACC Championship against Virginia. It helped UNC earn an ACC Championship earlier this month, and it helped the team get out to an early lead in the NCAA Championship on Sunday. 

“Everybody keys in on Erin, so we draw one runner to Erin, and we pass to Sietske, who finds Ryleigh,” Shelton said. “It’s a set piece, and there’s different ways to do it.”

On Friday, the Tar Heels went 0-5 on penalty corners against Penn State in their NCAA Tournament semifinal matchup. In their final showing of the season, UNC went back to what has had proven success throughout the postseason — the “tunnel” play. While North Carolina’s versatility on penalty corner plays remains a constant threat, the play's success in the postseason is astounding.

“We practice all kinds of options,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “It’s well-executed (tunnel). Ryleigh’s got a nice knack for touching the ball. Sietske has a very consistent delivery with her sweep.”

Northwestern tied the NCAA Championship later with a successful penalty corner of their own. This late Wildcat goal would’ve given them the lead if not for "tunnel". 

The Tar Heels have been dominant all season, and there have been numerous penalty corners run throughout each game. With the Sietske-to-Heck connection only beginning in the ACC Championship, it seems as if Shelton had this specific play up her sleeve for North Carolina’s important upcoming games.

Even though “tunnel” wasn’t used until the last handful of games in the season, it came in clutch during times of need. It propelled the Tar Heels through the ACC Championship and played a huge role in their National Championship victory. With Heck and Brüning both returning next season, the play is sure to make a return to the Tar Heels’ playbook.

Tricking opponents is something that North Carolina was forced to do against the heavyweight contenders in the NCAA Tournament, and it was executed perfectly once again in the National Championship.

“I’m proud of our kids,” Shelton said. They (Northwestern) executed one and so did we. It’s the way we draw it up.”


@dthsports |

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