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Wednesday December 7th

No. 1 UNC field hockey still isn't satisfied after winning sixth straight ACC Championship

The UNC field hockey team celebrates their ACC Championship win against UVA at the Jack Katz Stadium in Durham, N.C. on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. UNC beat UVA 3-2.
Buy Photos The UNC field hockey team celebrates their ACC Championship win against UVA at the Jack Katz Stadium in Durham, N.C. on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. UNC beat UVA 3-2.

Following UNC field hockey’s 3-2 win over UVA in the ACC Championship, senior midfielder and ACC Championship MVP Meredith Sholder approached head coach Karen Shelton with a huge grin on her face.

“I’ve won six,” Sholder said with a laugh, referring to the number of conference tournaments she’s won at UNC.

However, when asked about her confidence entering her sixth-straight ACC Championship, Sholder was clear that her team didn't expect to automatically expect to earn another trophy.

“You don’t want to be too confident and expect things to happen because nothing is expected," Sholder said. "There are no ‘supposed-to's’."

It comes as little surprise that the top-ranked, undefeated Tar Heel field hockey squad clinched the ACC Championship on Friday. But UNC can credit its 3-2 win over UVA to a series of unlikely circumstances — an opening goal from a non-starter and withstanding a late push from the Cavaliers.

Following a stagnant start in its ACC Championship semifinal win over Syracuse on Wednesday, the North Carolina field hockey team got off to a hot start in Friday's game.

The spark for the Tar Heels’ offense didn’t come from record five-time Offensive Player of the Year Erin Matson or even ACC Freshman of the Year Ryleigh Heck. Rather, sophomore midfielder Lisa Slinkert — a player who has not started a single game for the Tar Heels — scored the game-winner for UNC on Friday. 

While her goal may have surprised many, Slinkert said that she felt a goal was coming.

On a penalty corner earned in the first quarter, Matson stepped forward at the top of the shooting circle to deliver a searing shot that UVA goalkeeper Jet Trimborn blocked off of her pad. On the rebound, Slinkert controlled the ball, turned around, and delivered the game-opening goal and the 10th goal of her career.

“Everyone was so happy,” Slinkert said of the celebration that followed on the sidelines. “For me, it was not that big of a deal, I was like ‘that wasn’t a great goal.’ 

Sholder disagreed.

“It set the momentum of the entire game,” the ACC Defender of the Year said. “It was a little bit back and forth up until that point. Us being able to score first was really important.”

Slinkert’s goal not only put UNC out to a 1-0 lead but visibly alleviated the pressure from the Tar Heels from that point onward. North Carolina saw a lot of opportunities on the goal in the second period and didn’t shy away from several flashy plays as the game continued.

First-year Ashley Sessa put the spin cycle on a defender, turning and firing off a wide goal at the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, Heck completed a between-the-legs, no-look pass to find Matson in front of the goal for what ended up being a failed shot attempt. 

However, this looseness vanished when UVA made a late-game push, scoring two goals in the final period to put the pressure on the Tar Heels. With two minutes remaining, the Cavaliers went from being down two goals to within one point with less than two minutes remaining.

Shelton said she partially blames herself for the Cavaliers‘ comeback, as she instructed her team to pass around the back to slow the tempo of the game down, leading to easy opportunities in UNC’s shooting circle.

“What happens is they go back, and then they go back a little more, and then we’re in our circle,” Shelton said. “So that’s a little bit of my responsibility.”

Despite this late test, North Carolina still held a one-goal lead thanks to a penalty corner deflection and baseline goal by Heck in the second and fourth quarters, respectively. 

As the clock ticked down, the UNC bench held each other back, waiting for the clock to hit exactly zero before rushing the field. Soon, the buzzer sounded and the mob was unleashed, dashing to form a giant, jumping mass that was missing one player.

Sietske Brüning, who had taken a hit to her leg earlier in the game, was limping far behind. Sholder and sisters Ciana and Romea Riccardo came over to assist the first-year back, carrying Brüning to join the team’s celebration.

It was a poignant moment that represented the team as a whole on Friday — slightly battered, but still victorious.

UNC was not ‘supposed to’ score its opening goal thanks to a non-starter. The team certainly wasn’t 'supposed to' give up two fourth-quarter goals to UVA.

Still, North Carolina earned the win, which Matson said is a “stepping stone” for the Tar Heels as they prepare for the NCAA Tournament.

"We're going to celebrate today, we're going to be proud of what we did out on the field, but watch film tomorrow morning and this is not our end goal," the senior forward said. "Some people throw up ones while taking pictures, but everyone was like 'No, no, no — we're not one yet.' That's not (all) we want to win and walk away with."

@shelbymswanson 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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