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The Daily Tar Heel

Penalty corner creativity propels UNC field hockey to Final Four


UNC senior forward Paityn Wirth (10) takes a penalty in Karen Shelton Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023 during the second round of the NCAA Field Hockey Championship against Harvard.

In the 29th minute of Friday’s 6-1 routing of William & Mary, the North Carolina field hockey team tried something a little different on its penalty corner opportunity.

Senior forward Paityn Wirth inserted the ball to the top of the circle to senior back Romea Riccardo, and sophomore midfielder Sietske Brüning drew back her stick as if preparing for an immediate shot on goal. 

But instead, Riccardo snuck the ball behind Brüning for junior midfielder Jasmina Smolenaars to collect and send toward senior midfielder Katie Dixon in the middle of the circle, who guided the hard-hit ball into the right corner of the cage, extending the lead to 2-0. 

In the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this weekend, No. 1 UNC showcased new options in its penalty corner offense. The Tar Heels found the back of the cage on three corner attempts in Friday’s match against the Tribe. Then, three out of four North Carolina goals came off a corner in Sunday’s 4-2 win over No. 9 Harvard to advance to the Final Four.

Before Friday’s game, UNC was 21-122 in corner opportunities this season. But for the first time this year, the Tar Heels scored more than two goals on corners, and did so in back-to-back matchups.

A typical North Carolina penalty corner usually follows this form: After the insert, the ball is stopped for first-year forward Charly Bruder to launch a powerful, one-hit stroke towards the cage. However, going into the tournament, Dixon said it is crucial for the team to work on more attacking options off the corner.

“Honestly, we’ve stuck with Charly’s hit a lot, and that’s been working a lot,” Dixon said. “We’re just trying to change up the options so that it’s not easy for teams to scout us.” 

With more ball movement and different Tar Heels taking shots on corners this weekend, numerous UNC players recorded goals. In the second half of Friday’s match, Wirth scored twice off a corner by hugging the far left post right after her insert to tap in deflected shots.

Then, on Sunday, when North Carolina needed a goal after Harvard trimmed the deficit to 3-2, junior midfielder Lisa Slinkert stepped up with her own direct shot, sealing the victory. 

“Our connection in there has just been a lot better, so we’re finally able to do more than just a straight shot,” Wirth said

Even with all their new options, the team hasn't completely ditched the Bruder one-hit. Rather, head coach Erin Matson said on Sunday that the additional tactics reinforce the element of surprise whenever the Tar Heels look to the first-year for a shot at the top of the circle. 

Against the Crimson, Bruder found the back of the cage twice on penalty corner attempts with her threatening wind-up shot, providing UNC an early lead going into halftime. Even when teams expect her shot, Matson said it’s hard for a goalie to react to Bruder's power and scary for defenses to try to get in the way.

“Her shot is a rocket,” Matson said. “All spring, all fall we’ve been working on just harnessing it and to get it on target because it’s going to go in nine times out of 10. She’s been working so hard on it.”

While the versatile corner options already make UNC harder to scout, Matson said the flexibility of the players in the penalty offense make it even harder for opponents to prepare for. As the team looks to face No. 5 Virginia for the third time this season in the semifinals, a level of unpredictability will be crucial in these offensive opportunities.

“There’s always more variations we can create,” Matson said. “We’ll have to continue to stay one step ahead.”


@dthsports |

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