Friday, May 20, 2016

UNC Seniors Have One Last Chance To Leave A Legacy

When 23-year-old senior attackman Steve Pontrello came to UNC as a freshman, the goal was simple — win a national championship.

Three years later, and the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team is still in the midst of a 23-year Final Four drought.

That’s right. Pontrello, the team’s leading point-getter, was about 2 months old. He’s the only current UNC player who was alive the last time the Tar Heels made an appearance in the Final Four.

But with a quarterfinal win against Notre Dame this weekend, Pontrello and Co. have a chance to change that.

Despite UNC’s history, success hasn’t been a goal. It’s been an expectation, for the Tar Heels the past three years. With an all-time attack trio and a strong corps of young players, the Tar Heels were supposed to be going places.

But now, Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter and Marcus Holman have come and gone, and those “young” players are seniors. Pontrello was forced to move from offensive midfielder to attackman in an attempt to make up for the loss of school’s all-time leading point-getter, and the depth UNC previously touted on offensive is merely a memory.

To say the door is closing on the Tar Heels would be more than just an understatement.The team is scoring almost two fewer goals a game. They’re giving up just as many goals per game, and they’re clearing the ball at a rate (84%) that is 5 percent lower than last year.

The team is, simply put, lacking the traditionally agreed upon formula necessary to win a championship.

Going into selection Sunday, the odds UNC would make it to the Final Four were the lowest they’d been since Pontrello’s highly-touted recruiting class came to Chapel Hill.

Yet somehow — with a win against Notre Dame this weekend — they have a chance.

This isn’t the team UNC expected to make it all the way, but this also isn’t the team anyone expected to come back from 10-15 deficit to beat Notre Dame during the regular season.

While the odds are against UNC winning a title, the team certainly has a shot. The door might be closing, or even closed, but if Pontrello can use those first-team All-ACC wheels of his, he just might be able to bust the door open before it latches completely shut on the senior.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sloppy Play Plagues Tar Heels In ACC Tournament Loss

With less than a minute left in the third quarter the North Carolina men's lacrosse team had an opportunity to close in on an 8-4 deficit in a game that was slowly slipping away from them.

What proceeded was an awkward cluster of dysfunction.

With the ball in Luke Goldstock's stick at the top of the box, the Tar Heels began passing the ball around with no player seeming to want the ball — and no play called for the offense. As the clock ticked toward zero, UNC struggled to even get a shot off.

The play was but a microcosm of the Tar Heel's 10-7 loss against Syracuse — and their season.

Plagued by sloppy play, turnovers, failed clears and mental mistakes, the Tar Heels showed Friday night in Kennesaw that they have a long way to go if they want to make it to Philadelphia and Championship Weekend.

The Tar Heels eight second half turnovers (13 total) and three failed put immense pressure on an overworked defense, and Goalkeeper Brian Balkam standing on his head with seven third-quarter saves (12 total) was the only thing that kept the game from getting out of hand.

Last weekend UNC found itself in a similar situation against Notre Dame only to comeback and go on a seven goal run sparked by Stephen Kelly's performance at the face-off X. But Kelly's nine wins on 21 face-offs weren't enough to swing momentum in the Tar Heels way this time.

While a small three-goal rally in the second quarter kept Friday's game respectable, Ben Williams' ability to neutralize Kelly in the second half, winning 6-9 face-offs, prevented the Tar Heels from recreating last week's magic.

If the Tar Heels are going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, they're going to need to generate offense on a more consistent basis without using Kelly's ability to give them extra possession as a crutch.

In order to do that, coach Joe Breschi and his crew will need to find a way to cut down on unsettlingly dysfunctional situations like the ones they experienced to end the third quarter and numerous other times throughout Friday night's game.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

These Aren't The Tar Heels We're Used To, But That Might Be A Good Thing

The 2016 season for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team hasn’t been like any other in the past four years or so. The team lacks the greatness of a Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter or Marcus Holman who were able to put up all-time offensive numbers for the program. They lack depth at the offensive midfield that’s always allowed them to pressure defenses in platoon-like fashion for 60 minutes. They even lack a rock-solid wall of a goalkeeper like what Kieran Burke has provided the past three years. What has that equated to? UNC started the season with its worst record in the past 5 years and experienced one of the lowest media poll rankings it’s had since coach Joe Breschi started his tenure. Yet somehow, by beating top-ranked Notre Dame 17-15 in a hotly contested comeback, the Tar Heels didn’t stop this trend of breaking trends. The instead exacerbated it as they snapped a three season long losing streak against the Fighting Irish. The Tar Heels didn’t make it easy on themselves either. Despite being in a tied game going into halftime, the Tar Heels allowed a six-point third quarter and looked flat on offense. Every time the Fighting Irish took the ball down the field, it seemed like they were netting a goal, and not a single UNC attacker was able to get by his man or force the defense to rotate. With a five point deficit, things were looking bleak for the Tar Heels. All that ended when Shane Simpson hooked up with Luke Goldstock spark an improbable run with less than five minutes left in the game. From that goal onward, UNC’s ability to win faceoff after faceoff flipped the game on its head. Stephen Kelly feasted on Fighting Irish faceoff specialists winning 7-10 in the fourth quarter as violations from earlier in the half made Notre Dame’s specialists trigger shy. UNC attacker, now filled with adrenaline, were attacking an exhausted defense, and the depth issues that have plagued the team all season felt fictitious. The revitalized Tar Heels capped off the game with five goals in the last five minutes to upset Notre Dame in the most epic fashion -- the same sort of fashion that Notre Dame has used to beat UNC the past three years by a combined three points.
UNC began this season by breaking trends in all the wrong ways. But if the team can use Saturday’s success as a catapult into the post-season, the Tar Heels could very well see yet another trend broken on their way to the school’s first Final Four since 1993.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rapid Reaction: Bitter, Sankey Not Tawaaraton Finalists

Jimmy Bitter has recorded 34 goals on 69 points this season. Joey Sankey 27 goals on 63 points. Both have led the second highest scoring offense in the nation on their way to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Neither will receive the Tawaaraton Trophy at the end of May. They won't even get consideration.

Instead the selection committee announced that Kevin Rice, Lyle Thompson, Myles Jones, Matt Kavanagh and Wes Burg would be finalists for the award.

It's always tough to argue against nominating key players on top-ranked teams, and discounting a player like Lyle Thompson because he plays on a team that isn't as highly-ranked would be ignorant.

But saying that guys like Bitter and Sankey, who are a deep playoff run from shattering UNC records, aren't at least as deserving as a guy like Wes Burg who has 43 goals and 60 points.

No disrespect to Burg, but he has eerily similar statistics to an attackman, Luke Goldstock (44 g, 60 p), who is the third best attackman at North Carolina.

There's no doubt Matt Kavanagh has done an outstanding job with the Notre Dame offense, but he has few points per game than both Sankey and Bitter. The junior accumulated 50 points through 12 regular season games, and proved he has a clutch gene that's unmatched. Does that mean that he's more deserving of the Tawaaraton Award than two guys who captain an offense that averages a point more per game than the Fighting Irish?

Kevin Rice carried the Syracuse Orange past UNC to an ACC Championship a week ago and boasts a 68 point season. His resume is nearly identical to that of Bitter and Sankey. Each player plays for a top-ranked team, has recorded 60-plus points and has beaten numerous top-ranked opponents. I don't think you can make a case that he's any more deserving either.

We're splitting hairs here, I'll admit, but neither Bitter nor Sankey being names finalists is flabbergasting. When I saw that neither player was named a finalist, I was surprised. I looked into the statistics, and this is what I found. I'll leave it to you to decide if I'm correct.

Do I have a bias because I've watched Bitter and Sankey closely throughout their careers? There's no doubt, but the numbers don't lie.

And the impact these two have on a game doesn't either.

Myles Jones Named Tawaaraton Finalist

Duke offensive midfielder Myles Jones was named a Tawaaraton Finalist after an impressive ACC tournament despite playing through injury.

Jones barely practiced before the tournament and still managed to take advantage of any short-stick match ups he drew against Notre Dame. Recording a goal on three points, he proved that apparently practice is optional when you're 6-foot-5 and can beat up defenders like a schoolyard bully.

Historically this award has gone to players on teams that make deep runs. The exception, of course, was last year when Albany's Lyle Thompson won the award. If Duke three-peats don't be surprised if Jones wins this award. He will likely be the reason they made it that far.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rapid Reaction: NCAA Tournament Selection Edition

With Duke and North Carolina learning about what their paths to Championship Weekend look like, I've decided to give a quick and sweet rundown of what these gauntlets look like.

As expected, both teams received favorable first-round match ups at home, but assuming both teams make it to the elite eight, theirs a strong chance each will face a foe they've already failed to defeat once this season.


First Round: Ohio State, May 9 7:30 p.m.

Duke shouldn't have too many problems with an Ohio State team with only one win it can hang its hat on. Aside from being Johns Hopkins earlier in the season, OSU has come up short against all its highly-touted opponents. The Buckeyes were shut out against Notre Dame and only scored once against Maryland the first time the two teams played. While they beat JHU early in April, they got it handed to them 13-6 in the Big Ten championship game by the Blue Jays. While I imagine they'll bring it for their opportunity to take down the reigning champs, I don't think they have much of a chance.


First Round: Colgate, May 10 5:15 p.m.

This match up is a little bit more interesting. While Colgate's staple wins are against teams on the back end of the top-20, the Raiders managed to play a competitive game against the top-ranked Orange this past weekend. Colgate managed to make the contest a respectable 7-9 lose despite being absolutely dominated at the face-off X (2-for-20) and losing the ground ball battle (20-29). I haven't seen the film so I'm not going to act like I can explain that result, but I don't think it's replicable. The way you consistently make upsets in May is by controlling possession. In order to do that you need to win ground balls and face-offs. Colgate did neither of those things against Syracuse.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bitter Taste After UNC Loss To Orange

When someone thinks about North Carolina senior attack man and Tawaaraton nominee Jimmy Bitter, They typically think about the undersized, speedy sharpshooter pinging corners and frustrating goalkeepers.

If someone were to tell a lacrosse fan or analyst that Bitter had 12 shots and eight shots on goal against Syracuse Friday night in the ACC Tournament, a guy like Quint Kessenich or Ryan Flanagan would expect that the lefty, averaging 3.9 points per game, had at least a pair of goals. Heck, they'd probably guess he ended up with a hat trick. 

But with a chance to play in the ACC title game on the line, Bitter took 12 shots, hit one pipe, and was saved by keeper Bobby Wardwell seven times. Seven of Wardwell's 14 saves came from Bitter shots. 

Prior to the game at PPL Park, Bitter recorded a point in 55 straight games. That was good for the second longest active streak in Division I lacrosse, and now, that streak is over. 

Bitter managed to record at least a point in every game he's played since the middle of his freshman season, but against the Orange, despite ample opportunity to net a goal, he came up just short every time. 

During the game, Bitter got hounded by ESPNU announcers who claimed he was telegraphing shots that were low-to-low worm burners. They claimed he wasn't shooting efficiently. 

But hindsight is always 20-20. 

For all the times Bitter could have thrown a better fake or changed planes, he made a spectacular cut or submarined a ball to the upper left corner. 

Bitter clearly didn't have his best game, but a lot of that credit should go to Wardwell who seemed to have it out for Bitter from the start.

The last time these two teams played, Wardwell played 31 mins and had four saves. This time around he almost doubled that mark against Bitter alone. 

It's easy to say that, if UNC is going to bounce back from this game and make a deep run, the Tar Heels will need Bitter to perform to his Tawaaraton level potential. 

But the easy thing to say isn't always the right thing to say. 

Bitter didn't lose them the game, nothing about Bitter's approach to the game was wrong, and he'll be just fine come tourney time. 

Bitter likes to live by the mantra "shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot." That's never changed and it never will. 

So for anyone doubting Bitter or wondering what he needs to do to get ready for the NCAA tournament in two weeks, Bitter wont be looking back thinking "what if."

He's just going to keep shooting.