It's a scene North Carolina men's lacrosse fans are used to seeing. Steve Pontrello receives the ball up top with a short-stick defender guarding him. The Jersey kid licks his chops, splits his defender, steamrolls by him and pings the upper left corner on a rifle of a running shot.
It's what we're all used to seeing, but what we haven't seen nearly enough of this year.
When Pontrello scored his lone goal against Duke in UNC's 15-14 win Saturday, it wasn't just another mark on the scoresheet. Pontrello's goal represented a turning point in the Tar Heels season.
"We made adjustments at halftime with Tutton, Pontrello and Simpson on the first midfield line," coach Joe Breschi said. "We need (Pontrello) at this point in the season."
For the first 11 games of the season, Pontrello was used sparingly, only playing in six games as he started the season with an injury. Now that UNC has hit the toughest portion of its schedule—ACC play—the Tar Heels need Pontrello.
While Peyton Klawsinki and Patrick Kelly have performed better than expected with Pontrello and Shane Simpson's absences, there's no way the Tar Heels can replace Pontrello's strong right-handed shot and dodging ability.
With a physical presence that forces defenses to account for his driving and extend themselves to prevent his shot, Pontrello's abilities go beyond just scoring goals. He opens up space for other middies like Chad Tutton to find openings and improve the offense’s efficiency on the whole.
"It's been a gradual progression," Breschi said. "We were a little conservative, heading (toward starting Pontrello). Finally it was time to open up."
As a two-year starter coming into his junior year, Pontrello was expected to improve upon being the fourth leading scorer on the team from 2014. With 17 points, Tutton was the only midfielder to best the 5-foot-8, 195-pound corner-ripping specimen.
He might not reach those numbers this season, but if the Tar Heels are going to make a deep run all the way to memorial weekend, they'll need to see a lot more of the Pontrello we all got a glimpse of against Duke.
"Pontrello is getting to 100 percent," Breschi said. "But he's still lethal at 80 percent."