With its season opener against Mercer on Feb. 10 quickly approaching, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team has its eyes on making it back to the NCAA Tournament after missing three out of the last four postseasons.
Last season, the Tar Heels had an 8-6 overall record and went 1-5 in conference play. It was a less-than-desirable finish for a team that made it to the Final Four in the previous year.
This season, the Tar Heels will be without their leading scorer from 2022, Chris Gray, who ranked second nationally with 3.43 goals per game. To make up for this loss on offense, the Tar Heels are looking to play faster and with a sense of urgency.
“We took a good hard look at ourselves, and said ‘How can we be more productive offensively?’" head coach Joe Breschi said. "It’s got to be a cohesive unit. So, we’re going to play faster, we’re going to use our athleticism. Sometimes we are paralyzed by too much scheme and not enough playing."
Of course, there will still be schemes and structure, but this team has found success in practice by easing off the reins a bit and having fun.
“It’s almost like a structured backyard style of lacrosse,” graduate defensive midfielder Connor Maher said. “We have the schemes and systems in place, but it almost feels like you’re playing with your friends.”
Now in his second year as a team captain, Maher was tabbed as a preseason second-team All-American by USA Lacrosse Magazine. Despite Maher's status as an All-American defender a season ago, UNC often struggled to limit its opponents’ from scoring, allowing 12.86 goals per game with a scoring defense that ranked just 52nd out of 72 Division I teams. Maher said he's looking to help the Tar Heels’ defensive woes by limiting the amount of saves junior goalkeeper and anticipated starter Collin Krieg has to make.
“I think overall, defensively we have to do a better job of playing more aggressive and putting (Krieg) in a better position to make saves,” Breschi said. “Instead of just relying on him to make the saves.”
The Tar Heels are currently tabbed as the No. 17 team in the nation in the Nike/USA Lacrosse preseason poll. UNC is one of four ACC teams in the top 20, with Virginia claiming the top spot in the polls and Notre Dame and Duke landing at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively.
The path back to the postseason certainly won’t come without its trials. Not only is the ACC a powerful force in college lacrosse once again, but the Tar Heels will play a team ranked in the preseason top 20 in almost half of their regular season games.
“You don’t commit to a school like UNC without expecting to play the best of the best,” Maher said. “And that’s what you want. You come here to play ranked teams.”
As the season draws closer, the Tar Heels are focused on playing fast, executing and paying attention to details. UNC’s leading returning scorer, senior attackman Lance Tillman, said it is one thing to have energy on day one, but that great teams are able to maintain that level of energy for the entire season — which is the goal for these Tar Heels.
“I think (the key) is staying consistent,” Tillman said. “It’s treating every game like a ranked game. I know that sounds like a cliché, but at this level that’s what you need to do.”
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