For once, the No. 4 North Carolina women’s lacrosse team knew it wouldn’t be the favorite on its home turf.
Prior to Saturday’s top-five showdown with No. 1 Syracuse, the Tar Heels had won 41 straight games at Dorrance Field. And in the Tar Heels' 14-12 loss, they didn’t quit — but they didn’t make the most of their chances, either.
The Orange boasted a 14-0 record with a stacked roster of six midseason All-Americans, while UNC had to rebuild its roster this season after graduating several program legends from a national championship team.
“Going in, we knew that everyone thought we were going to lose, which was really good motivation,” North Carolina senior attacker Nicole Humphrey said. “We wanted to show that we could still compete against a top team. I think we did a really good job of bringing the energy, and we played the best we could.”
UNC outshot the Orange 35-25, but couldn’t overcome a career day for Syracuse goalkeeper Delaney Sweitzer, who finished with 15 saves.
“We had opportunities to put the ball away,” UNC head coach Jenny Levy said. “You can’t be a shooter, you’ve got to be a finisher. And our program prides ourselves on being finishers."
Syracuse got out to an 8-4 lead midway through the second quarter. With the game on the brink of getting away, the Tar Heels couldn’t beat Sweitzer.
On one occasion, redshirt sophomore attacker Reilly Casey, in an effort to deceive the senior goalkeeper, turned her back to the goal and flung the ball over her right shoulder with an eye toward the back of the net.
“She’s just unreal,” Syracuse attacker Meaghan Tyrrell said. “We are so lucky to have her in our cage — I would hate to shoot against her.”
Despite Sweitzer's dominance, Levy’s team fought back time and again, even when it looked like the Orange might run out of Chapel Hill with a blowout victory.
First-year attacker Marissa White, a crucial part of the Tar Heels' rebuild with 34 goals this season, trimmed the lead to two just before halftime. UNC scored the first two goals of the second half thanks to contributions from first-year attacker Caroline Godine and junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger, and the game was tied.
“I have a tough team,” Levy said. “I like our grit, our toughness, and I think that’s going to serve us well going down the home stretch this season.”
But the Orange were too much. And, in the end, UNC just ran out of time.
After a back-and-forth second half, Syracuse attacker Megan Carney produced the decisive goal with just under four to play. Two minutes later, midfielder Emma Tyrrell removed any doubt with another goal of her own. The game was lost, but the Tar Heels showed growth despite their inexperience.
“We just really wanted to come out and show who we were,” Humphrey said. “We wish we could get some shots back, but, overall, I think we did everything we set out to do. As a team, we really came together.”
The home win streak is no more, and Syracuse looks primed to knock UNC off the national championship pedestal. For Levy, Humphrey and this young Tar Heels team, however, holding off a climbing Orange squad is not what matters.
Playing with high energy, building confidence and learning from mistakes are more important than any outcome.
“A loss is a loss, and it’s not defining at this point in the season,” Humphrey said. “Each game is going to be a different game and there’ll be ups and downs.”
This UNC team is different from the last. The focus for the 2022-23 Tar Heels is not defending a national championship — it’s continuing to improve and building towards another opportunity to win a title.
“I don’t ever see that you’re defending anything,” Levy said. “We want to position ourselves to be as good as we can be."
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