The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

'We're all brothers': Midfielder Connor Maher emerges as leader for UNC men's lacrosse

20230321_Rhyne_MLAXvHPU-3.jpg
UNC graduate midfielder Connor Maher (31) runs with the ball during the men's lacrosse game against High Point on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Dorrance Field.

After dropping a game to Ohio State in mid-February, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team came into practice the next week with some pent-up aggression.

Intensity levels noticeably shifted – guys were getting into each other, there was a lot of physical play, a lot of talking and an air of ramped up competitiveness.

That weekend, the team scored 19 goals to defeat Syracuse.

Graduate defensive midfielder Connor Maher attributes this grit to the brotherhood that the team revels in.

“When you're on that field, we're all brothers,” Maher said. “That's how brothers fight. So it's not anger, it's not hate. It's love. And brothers fight out of love.”

The UNC lacrosse team has a simple but powerful mantra: “Family. Academics. Lacrosse.” As the only returning captain and one of the most senior players on the team, Maher serves as a model for success in each of those categories.

A student in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Master of Accounting Program, Maher has earned several academic honors. In 2022, he was named a Top-10 UNC scholar athlete, and the ACC Men’s Lacrosse Scholar Athlete of the Year. 

Maher has already caused seven turnovers this season and has scooped up 20 ground balls. Despite being a defensive midfielder, he has logged three goals and four assists over the team’s eight games thus far.

Last season, the Tar Heels graduated three out of four captains, including standout attackman Chris Gray, who served captain for the last two years of his eligibility and led the team in both goals and assists.

Maher and Gray are not only best friends but also roommates, as both of them are finishing up graduate school in Chapel Hill. As someone who has been through it all before, Gray offers a helpful perspective when Maher needs someone to talk to — he comes to all the games that he is in town for and he and Maher often talk about practice and how the team is doing.

While Maher looks to Gray as a role model, he has his own leadership style with the team. 

“I think [Connor] learned a lot from Chris,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “Chris was more of a quiet leader and he led with his actions. When he spoke, you really heard him, but he was more of a quiet guy. He wasn't a rah-rah motivator type guy like Connor has become.”

The relationship Maher shares with his old co-captain is mirrored in his relationship with his current co-captains, including senior Alex Breschi.

The pair have been playing together since they were on the same club team as 10-or-11-year-olds. The two went their separate ways in high school, but played for traditionally big rival high schools in the Baltimore area – Maher at Calvert Hall and Breschi at Loyola Blakefield.

The players also remained close off the field — frequently vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland and calling each other for advice — which has helped the duo form a bond that has shown up on the field throughout their careers

“Connor and I have been playing with each other for years now,” Alex Breschi said. “We've gone to the Final Four. We've had to make huge stops in big games. We've had struggles. We've had a lot of success. So when we have guys on the team that are struggling, we've been there before. To have a brother on the field like that on and off the field is really special.”

Even beyond lacrosse, Maher’s academic resume is impressive, which can be seen as a testament to his tenacity.

Last season he was recognized for his academic and athletic achievements by the Collegiate Sports Information Directors of America, who awarded him the Academic All-America honors. He was the only ACC men’s lacrosse player to earn this award.

“I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the way you do some things is the way you do everything,” Maher said. “So, if you're slacking in the classroom and not getting your work done, not meeting with your professors when you have to, you’re not going to be able to do that stuff on the field.”

Alex Breschi was quick to mention Maher’s smarts, adding that they helped him as a leader since he could strategize and see plays through on the field.

Entering college, Alex Breschi was thrown into a new defensive position after primarily playing offensive midfield in high school. Though the change was confusing and daunting at times, Alex Breschi said Maher was an incredible teacher and mentor during his younger years.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

“He helped build confidence that I didn't have and he believed in me sometimes when I didn't,” Alex Breschi said. “That helped me grow as a player and grow as a teammate and I'm forever thankful for that.”

Now, Alex Breschi and Maher are leaders of more than just one team. The duo coaches an eighth grade club team in Chapel Hill, Carolina Mavericks Lacrosse, started by the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator Kevin Unterstein. 

“It's crazy how fast it goes,” Alex Breschi said. “Connor and I still talk about the days we were playing club lacrosse together back in middle school, and now that we get to coach, it's a surreal feeling. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would trade places with one of the eighth graders and do it all again with Connor and the rest of the crew.”

But coaching middle schoolers is far different from captaining Division I, college-aged men. Maher and Breschi try to find a healthy balance, teaching the kids they coach that lacrosse is just one piece of the puzzle. 

“There's way more to life than being a lacrosse player,” Alex Breschi said. “You could be the best lacrosse player in the world, but if you're a jerk, then nobody's going to like you. Being a good son, being a good brother, being a good student, being a good teammate, being a good man off the field is way more important than any goal or ground ball or even a good lacrosse player.”

There it is: Family. Academics. Lacrosse. The team’s mantra, repeated.

“When guys are down, he picks them up,” Joe Breschi said. “When they're sky high, he keeps them going. When there's things we need to change, he's a sounding board for us. It's a two-way street and I think that's what makes it so special and his leadership so valuable to the team this year.”

@evemaddock

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com