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UNC women's lacrosse showcases relentless drive and strong draw control unit in alumni game

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UNC senior midfielder Alyssa Long (10) reconnects with alumna Taylor Moreno (30) during the annual women’s lacrosse alumni scrimmage match at Dorrance Field on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2024.

Marie McCool kept seeing her team lose the draw control. 

Her team  — composed of fellow North Carolina women’s lacrosse alumni, including pro players and national team members — kept conceding the draw to current UNC players, who have yet to make their name.

That excited McCool.

Granted, McCool is an assistant coach, so even a 19-14 loss for the alumni team was a win for her. But Saturday's scrimmage between No. 3 North Carolina women's lacrosse and an all-star squad of Tar Heel alumni also showed her that a UNC draw unit hampered by injuries would not shy away from its task. This comes at the perfect time: the Tar Heels start their season this weekend against an elite draw unit, No. 6 James Madison.

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The UNC women’s lacrosse alumni team poses for a group photo after the annual alumni scrimmage match at Dorrance Field on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2024.

“In life there's a lot of things that are out of our control,” McCool said, “but the way that you respond to those things is something that you can control."

This season, UNC’s draw unit will be without midfielders Kaleigh Harden and Sophie Student due to injury. That’s more holes to fill for a team already reeling from key injuries to its defenders and attackers, including Brooklyn Walker-Welch, Marissa White and Chloe Humphrey.

Saturday was no slight task for the current Tar Heels to take on, either. Five players on the alumni roster played professionally for Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse last summer. In most cases, it was UNC’s all-time draw controls leader Ally Mastroianni earning possessions for the alumni.

The game was full of high-IQ moments from the alumni that McCool used as teaching moments for her players about poise and not always going "super fast."

There was one thing McCool said she can’t teach, though, that the Tar Heels showed in abundance: competitive fire.

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UNC alumna and women’s lacrosse assistant coach Marie McCool (4) looks to pass the ball during the annual alumni scrimmage match at Dorrance Field on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2024.

“You just have it,” McCool said. “So that's always something that is extremely positive when we see it. That's what we want our identity to be as a team: that team that never stops fighting."

To replace Harden and Student, players like graduate draw specialist Flynn Reed have stepped up. Reed transferred from East Carolina, where she set a program record for single-season draw controls. Be it improving wrist strength or learning exactly how to combat her opponent, Reed is always looking for ways to get better.

On Saturday, it showed.

“It just felt like the ball was a magnet to her stick when it was on the ground,” McCool said. “Like, she found a way to get the ball if it was a loose ball.”

There were other draw unit standouts as well, including graduate defender Bailey Horne, who out-dueled Mastroianni. McCool, however, backed away from saying she was "pleasantly surprised” about the draw unit’s performance. "I don't want to say surprised — I was very excited about the performance of all three of them," she said.

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UNC graduate student defender Bailey Horne (2) and alumna Andie Aldave (31) struggle for the ball during the annual women’s lacrosse team’s alumni scrimmage match at Dorrance Field on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2024.

McCool said she sees the draw unit go 100 percent in practice. They don’t just go through the motions — they treat draw practice like it’s a real game. So, to her, it’s no surprise that they’re improving. 

“The ball’s on the ground, there's six people around trying to get it,” McCool said. “So just putting your head down and doing whatever it takes to come up with that ball is important. And that's what they do against each other at practice.”

Last year, James Madison had a top-25 draw percentage in the country. Head coach Jenny Levy said that JMU’s center draw takers would be a threat to the Tar Heels come Saturday. In particular, Levy pointed to Isabella Peterson and Maddie Epke, who averaged 4.09 and 3.27 draw controls per game, respectively, in 2023.

UNC isn’t a perfect draw unit yet. But if nothing else, the Tar Heels have the intangibles necessary to strengthen the unit despite key injuries.

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And if you don’t believe the coaches, let the new kid on the block tell it — graduate transfer Ashley Humphrey. What has she seen from the team in her short time?

“I think we're just relentless, whether it's on defense, or in the ride, or on attack.”

Emma Moon contributed reporting to this story.

@dmtwumasi

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com