Tuesday, March 31, 2015

North Carolina's Pontrello Getting Back Into The Mix

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."

Friday, March 27, 2015

COLUMN: UNC Students Are Missing Out

Disclosure: I am a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been following and covering the North Carolina men's lacrosse team for my entire college career. 

Every year, the North Carolina men's lacrosse team is highly touted as one of the country's top teams.

But the Tar Heels consistently see half-filled bleachers at home games on Fetzer field. Half of fans are family and friends of players and coaches and the other half are fans who travelled with the opposing team. 

UNC students come to events by the handful and all too frequently fail to bring the energy fans bring to venues like Syracuse's Carrier Dome or Johns Hopkins' Homewood. 

In my humble opinion, lacrosse sells itself. It's the fast sport on two feet, there's a lot of hitting and flashy play is usually rewarded. 

But for those UNC students out there who don't see that as a good enough reason for coming out to see one of the best lacrosse teams in the game as they start their conference play, let me throw down some knowledge that might help to persuade you. 

I'll start at the top. If you're all about March Madness and love seeing someone who can make a defender shake in their boots, turn off the TV. You shouldn't be watching the Elite Eight at the NCAA tourney. You should be out at Fetzer field watching Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey chase history Sunday against Duke at 1 p.m.

Coming into the season Sankey was 57 points away from breaking Marcus Holman's record for most points all-time by at Tar Heel. Last season the 5-foot-5 shifty attacker had just that—57 points. This season he's already reached 44 points. 

Bitter is not slouch either. Starting alongside Sankey all four years Bitter came into his season year with 91 goals. Since then he's past the 100-goal mark and is closing in on the all-time record of 128. 

But it's not the statistics of these two that should be wooing you. It's the high-tempo, risk taking and gunslinging that draws viewers  in.

This tandem isn't going to break records by being prototypical attack men.

Bitter and Sankey are going to be the greatest attacking duo in UNC history because they take risks and make flasher plays than the Tar Heel lacrosse program has ever seen. 

Bitter loves capitalizing off poorly positioned defenders and using them as screens when he beams lefty shots around them from range that ping corners. 

Sankey infuriates keepers by tiptoeing the crease while getting crushed by defenders double his size as he lays out to sneak shots into the goal from the smallest of angles. 

Nothing about what this Tar Heel team does is boring, and it's not just the seniors who are looking to break records. 

Sophomore and first-year starter Luke Goldstock put all the pressure in the world on his back when he decided to done the jersey number 1 that was worn by UNC's all-time greatest offensive player Marcus Holman. 

But he hasn't disappointed in the slightest.

So far this season that young gun has 32 goals. UNC's record for goals in a season is 47. Goldstock needs 15 goals to break the record and he has four regular season games and whatever post season play UNC gets to break it. That very conservatively means he has at least six game to get 15 goals. Goldstock has reached goal marks like that in some 3 game spans this season. 

Whether you'd like to watch history in the making, see a couple of undersized guys break ankles or just watch your school win games, you have no excuse to not take a study break and check out Breschi's boys. 

They're everything you've come to expect from UNC athletics and more. The only thing their missing is a student section that matches their fire and passion.