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Heck delivers clutch penalty shootout performance in national championship

11192023_richards_SPORTS-FHOCKEY-vs-Northwestern-219-2.jpg
UNC sophomore midfielder/forward Ryleigh Heck (12) celebrates her winning shot during the NCAA field hockey championship game against Northwestern. UNC won in penalty shootouts with a score of 3-2.

With a national championship on the line, Ryleigh Heck spun her hockey stick in her hands, placed the tip on the turf and waited for the whistle.

Then, the sophomore forward was off. Dribbling inside the circle and putting her back to Northwestern goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz — regarded as one of the top goalies in the nation — Heck spun around and swept the shot around Skubisz and toward the cage. The ball pounded against the goal’s backboard.

What the Heck.

“My mind went blank,” she said. “I literally don’t even remember spinning or scoring. I just remember being with my teammates, cheering.”

In a nail-biting penalty shootout,  No. 1 UNC took down No. 2 Northwestern in the NCAA Championship, 2-1.With Heck’s goal sealing the victory, North Carolina defended its championship crown and earned its 11th title in program history. Given that Heck led the Tar Heels this season in points, it was only fitting the game was ultimately in her hands.

“Ryleigh likes to make it exciting,” head coach Erin Matson said. “She’s so creative. She’s hard to defend because you can watch everything she does, then go out there and maybe win one v. one, but she’ll learn throughout the process. She’s going to do something you don’t expect. She gets the same outcome doing it 50, 100 different ways.”

The final stroke was a poetic ending for Heck. It was also a moment of redemption.

Throughout regulation and both overtime periods, the Tar Heels outshot the Wildcats 14-8, but struggled to find the back of the cage after first-year forward Charly Bruder rocketed in a shot off a penalty corner in the 33rd minute.

Matson said her team's shots were slightly off-target and Skubisz kept coming up with big saves. The first-year head coach called Skubisz “one of the best goalkeepers in the country.”

But with less than three minutes remaining in the first overtime period, Heck had an early opportunity to put the game away for good. It didn’t go as planned.

Awarded a penalty stroke in the 68th minute, Heck stood in the middle of the circle and scooped the ball towards the left side of the cage. The shot ricocheted off Skubisz’s stick, and the Northwestern bench erupted, screaming and banging against the wall of their sideline in celebration of the save.

Play would have to continue for a little longer. 

Despite the missed stroke, Heck said she relied on a lesson from her dad, Roy Heck. After a mistake, he always told her to repeat one simple mantra: “Next play.”

“Sometimes they don’t all fall,” Matson said. “And no one remembers those if you’re sitting here with the national championship hat on and smiling.”

The remaining time in overtime dwindled down, and the sophomore had two more opportunities to ensure no one would remember her missed stroke.

For the first time this season, UNC’s matchup was decided on penalty strokes. It was also the first time in 29 years the NCAA Championship would be decided in a shootout. While some players might have crumbled under the pressure, Heck didn't. In fact, she said a shootout is one of her favorite things.

"For me, I thrive off of adrenaline," Heck said. "So I love it."

Although she had yet to experience a shootout in her two seasons with the Tar Heels before Sunday, the New Jersey native said she had a lot of experience in that situation. With the U.S. U-21 Women’s National Team in April, Heck put the first point on the board in a shootout against Argentina, helping the U.S. team take home the gold medal in the final of the 2023 Junior Pan American Championships.

Channeling that experience, Heck’s behind-the-back shot in the first round of the shootout slammed into the back of the cage. Then, after graduate goalkeeper Maddie Kahn made her fourth consecutive save, Heck had one more chance to win it all.

“I was happy that I was able to go first and kind of put it on Ryleigh’s shoulder,” Kahn said. “It was her turn to end the game.”

Once the final Northwestern stroke bounced off Kahn’s legs, the door was opened. With all eyes in Karen Shelton Stadium on the Tar Heels, Matson turned to her leading point-scorer and had just one thing to say.

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“Go win a national championship.”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com