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. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

UNC And Duke Tawaaraton Nominee Run Down

The 2015 Tawaaraton Nominees were announced in a press released earlier today. The release detailed three North Carolina players and two Duke players that will be considered for the Tawaaraton Award this year.

Myles Jones and Deemer Class were selected from Duke.

Chad Tutton, Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey were selected from UNC.

Among these five, Bitter and Sankey are the likeliest to win the award. Bitter leads UNC with 69 points and more assists than he's ever had (35), but Sankey isn't far behind with 60 points of his own.

Tutton's lack of assists will likely be his downfall. While he has 31 goals, he only has 5 assists, and UNC runs its offense through Bitter and Sankey. The odds of Tutton's assist numbers significantly changing are low.

Myles Jones's 65 points makes him the likelier of the Duke candidates to win the award. Class has 47 points. If Jones can have a strong outing in the ACC tourney and push Duke deep into the NCAA tournament, it will go a long way in assisting his candidacy, but Jones's inconsistent play against top ranked opponents could keep him from being strongly considered.

With the way this award if typically chosen, whatever player on the top team does the best will win. Once the finalists are announced, my expectation is that Tutton and Class will be left out.

ACC Tournament: Round One Preview

This weekend the ACC will cram three highly competitive games in the span of three days at Philadelphia's PPL Park. Here's my attempt at breaking down what will happen.

#4 Duke vs. #1 Notre Dame

Need to Know

The first time these two teams played at Duke's Koskinen Stadium it was clear who was the better team. The Fighting Irish absolutely tore the Duke defense to shreds scoring at an insanely efficient clip to start the game and never letting up on their way to a 15-10 win.

After that game coach John Danowski spent more than 30 minutes in the locker room speaking with players before coming out to address the media. The normally talkative coach who loves talking X's and O's was short with reporters.

When asked if he could comment on what he said to the guys in the locker room all he could say was,"No, I can't."

Needless to say, that game was an emotional one for the Blue Devils. They may be the defending champions, but with a 1-3 record in ACC play, they know their backs are against the ropes.

I'm not going to go out and say that Duke will win this game, but it will most definitely be more competitive than last time. I don't believe Duke has the personnel to handle Matt Kavanagh and the Irish offense, but coach D will most definitely find a way to make Duke in this game. Keep in mind that if Duke doesn't win this game, there's a good chance the team will have to travel to play its first NCAA playoff game.


While I truly believe Duke will come out ready to scrap, I don't see them pulling this one out. Notre Dame proved during the regular season that it wasn't just the best team in the conference, it was the best team in the country. I don't see that changing with this game.

Notre Dame 14, Duke 12

#2 North Carolina vs. #3 Syracuse

Need to Know

The crowd at North Carolina was enormous for the senior day of future UNC legends like Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter and Chad Tutton. UNC rode that home crowd all the way to a 17-15 victory as Sankey broke Marcus Holman's record for points in a career at Carolina.

UNC's offense was simply too prolific to stop. They have too many weapons that are too good, and if a team tries to take them on in a shoot out, they will lose 10 out of 10 times.

This time around Syracuse will have to tighten up defensively limit UNC's opportunities. They won't be able to completely shut down the Tar Heel offense that oozes depth and veteran leadership. In order to win, they'll need a strong performance out of the goalkeeping tandem of Bobby Wardwell and Warren Hill who combined for 10 saves in these teams' last contest.

But it's not that simple. It all starts with the Orange defense forcing UNC's risk-taking gunslingers into poor shot attempts.


The Tar Heels don't have the home crowd to keep hype this time around, but they don't need it. It's the ACC playoffs. Guys like Sankey and Bitter don't need anything more to get them hype for a big game like this one. I think they'll take this one, but it'll be a good one for sure.

North Carolina 16, Syracuse 15

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Former Tar Heel Makes A Difference In The Community

Here is an article I recently wrote for the Carrboro Commons about the work former UNC player Brent Voelkel is doing in the Chapel Hill community at the developmental level.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Joey Sankey Plays Big Despite Being Small (Full Version)

A shortened version of this feature story was published Saturday, April 18 in the Raleigh News and Observer. This is the full unedited version of that story. 

The conditions were damp and the field was slick as the No. 15 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team slugged it out with No. 5 Maryland Terrapins in a feisty game.

Hard hits came frequently and scrappy play was the norm for both teams as the hotly contested rivalry game evoked high emotions.

It was no place for an inexperienced freshman.

Yet for some reason, something possessed coach Joe Breschi to play then freshman Joey Sankey. Weighing in at 155 pounds and standing at 5-foot-5, the physically unimpressive freshman was beat and battered in the 2012 contest.

But somehow, he found a way to shine on the gloomy day.

“That was kind of his intro to division one lacrosse,” Breschi said. “He goes out there and he scraps and claws and gets absolutely hammered, but has a nose for the cage.”

Leading the Tar Heels to an upset win at home, Sankey had a hat trick and the breakout game of his Carolina career. Getting layed out and knocked to the ground every time he got close to the cage, Sankey showed outstanding tenacity by scoring all three of his goals while being hit.

“That was definitely one of the top-five most fun games I’ve played in,” Sankey said. “I just remember when I got the game ball coach Breschi said something about how all my goals I was on the ground for.”

Simply put by Breschi, “He earned it.”

Since that day, Sankey hasn’t grown physically. He’s still 5-foot-5 and likely will be the rest of his life. But he didn’t let it stop him then, and he doesn’t let it stop him now — never has, never will.

No excuses

Sankey’s played sports all his life. As the youngest boy in his family, Sankey’s always fought to keep up with his older brothers, and he’s been raised to never let excuses explain a lack of effort.

“Dad would have kicked my ass if I didn’t (play) hard,” Sankey said. “He instilled that in me really early.”

“No matter what sport it was if I ever didn’t give it my all or didn’t give it 100 percent, I would hear it the entire car ride home, the entire night until I went to bed.”

Using that mentality, the physically unimposing athlete never let his lack of height be used as an excuse for anything. Instead Sankey studied the greats, more specifically those who shared his height disadvantage.

Watching players like Wes Welker from football and Mikey Powell from lacrosse, Sankey tried to emulate the professionals’ movements and adapt them to his game.

While Welker and Powell weren’t quite as short, Sankey still found that sometimes there were ways players his height could find advantages on the field.

For the Tar Heel stud, those advantages include using speed and a low center of gravity to duck under defenders fighting for groundballs and squeeze his body in tight spaces around the crease of the cage to make improbable goals.

So when Breschi was scouting Sankey in high school at Penn Charter to see if he would make a good future Tar Heel, it was a no brainer.

“There was no thinking twice,” Breschi confidently claimed. “I knew right away I wanted to recruit him. He was on our list in a hurry.”

Despite committing early on, that didn’t keep the youngster from having doubts once he got to Chapel Hill.

A friendly competition

Sankey’s not shy about admitting that he had second thoughts the fall of his freshman year. He was young and undersized.

Not only was Sankey dealing with the often overwhelming situation of adjusting to college level lacrosse, the Pennsylvanian was surrounded by amazingly talented and experienced players.

From Marcus Holman, who currently holds the UNC record for points, to Nicky Galasso, who had just had arguably the best freshman year of any player in UNC history, everywhere Sankey turned he saw another person he’d have a tough time beating out to get playing time.

“I kind of struggled a little bit,” Sankey said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t running through my head, me questioning myself about whether I could play at this level.”

But then the injuries started to come.

With players like Galasso and others being limited due to injuries, Sankey quickly worked his way up the depth chart.

“Who knows if I would have played for the next few years if those certain guys weren’t injured,” Sankey said.

There was only one person standing in Sankey’s way — Jimmy Bitter.

Bitter and Sankey both came to UNC the same year and both ranked in the top ten according to Inside Lacrosse’s rankings.

With injuries hurting the Tar Heels each received his fair share of chances to play and make a difference.

“You never knew freshman year how much time you were going to get,” Sankey admitted. “It was almost a competition to see who messed up first and the person who messed up first would get less playing time.”

“When we played we weren’t actually at our best,” Bitter added. “It hurt us… because the thing we’re best at is taking chances and playing with reckless abandon.”

But it didn’t take long for the two to become starters — and friends.

“When we first got to college we weren’t that tight,” Sankey said. “I thought he was pretty annoying.”

Without the stress of trying to beat out Bitter for a job, Sankey felt like he could play more freely and started to get close to the outgoing spunky sharpshooter.

“When you’re with someone every single day of the week, instead of thinking he’s arrogant you think he’s funny,” Sankey said. “He’s still annoying though.”

As the two entered their senior season both have become vocal leaders and captains of the team as they look to finally take the Tar Heels to championship weekend in their last effort to win an NCAA title at UNC.

Ending on top

He’d be lying if said it wasn’t in the back of his mind. The thought of being the best UNC attackman ever is a pretty cool thought to say the least.

And Sankey has a chance to be just that.

Last weekend Sankey passed Marcus Holman’s UNC record of 213 career points. Sankey played with Holman for two years and reaped the benefits of playing along side the hardworking, savvy former record holder.

But now Sankey has a chance to surpass the guy he used to look up to as a leader. Having accumulated 157 points in his first three years, Sankey was just 56 points away from matching Holman’s record. Last season alone, the undersized All-American had 57 points.

It was almost a form of poetic justice that on Sankey’s senior day against the No. 2 Syracuse Orange he’d tally three points on his way to accumulating his 214th point in front of 6,000 fans.

Not too bad for a kid who gets heckled with taunts like “midget” and “Mini-Me from Austin Powers.”

“I definitely did not expect to be the leading scorer on the team any year,” Sankey humbly attested. “It’s just one of those things where I just feel like I lucked out and picked the right place, the right team.”

Obviously it wasn’t completely luck.

Sankey’s speed, tenacity, fast shot, off-ball movement, ability to distribute and insanely high lacrosse IQ did a lot to help his cause.

In short, he’s able to make any play the team needs whenever they need it.

No situation better exemplifies that talent than a game in 2014 against the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays.

The Tar Heels trailed 7-4 in the game early on, but in the second half, the team miraculously turned it on offensively and gained a lead. 

As time slowly ran out for the Blue Jays, the Tar Heels were looking to milk the clock on offense as much as possible to let their defense rest without drawing a stalling warning from the referees.

Taking on his man from behind the goal, Sankey managed to get his defender hung up in front of the net. If the defender went left, Sankey would have a wide-open lane right. If the defender went right, Sankey would have a wide-open lane left.

Knowing that a recent rule change allowed Sankey to stay behind the net without drawing a delay of game as long as his teammates were making cuts in front of the goal, the savvy attackman waved his arms back and forth directing his teammates to move like a conductor orchestrating a string ensemble.

“I knew that this was a perfect time to try and wait as long as I could back there and make that defenseman or that goalie come out,” Sankey said. “For some odd reason they just didn’t do that.”

By the time a Blue Jay defender finally moved toward Sankey, the damage was already done. Minutes had run off the clock and fans in the stadium were livid that so much time could be taken off the clock from a player simply sitting behind the goal.

“I heard Hopkins fans, even North Carolina fans, screaming to try and do something because they were bored watching me back there,” Sankey said.
“I was just patient.”

It’s savvy play like that that got Sankey to where he is today.

He may not have the size that many players rely on, but he doesn’t need it. He’s got more than enough skill to make up for it.

Sankey Plays Big (News and Observer feature)

I was lucky enough to get my first ever feature story published in a professional newspaper Saturday.

He's my story about UNC senior attackman Joey Sankey. This feature was essentially cut in half because of space issues in the paper. I'll be posting the full edition here in the near future for those interested.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Will The Real Myles Jones Please Stand Up

He's a monster of a man. 
Standing at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Duke midfielder Myles Jones is every coach's dream physically and athletically. Leading the nation in points by a midfielder, he's far and above the best attacking middie in the nation, with about 4 goals a game. The next closest midfielder is averaging almost a point less.
But in the past month, Jones has been streaky to say the least.
The towering gunslinger was not only kept relatively silent against Notre Dame, but he didn't score in the first half against North Carolina a week ago and didn't score at all against Syracuse the week before that.
Between the Blue Devils contests against Georgetown and North Carolina, Jones encountered a scoring drought that lasted more than 100 minutes—not what you want from your leading offensive threat.
While Jones's sheer athleticism allowed him to dominate early in the season, as Duke has played tougher competition and better defense, Jones has begun to struggle.
Since accumulating eight points against Georgetown in the middle of march, Jones has only been able to muster up six points in the past three games. In those three games, he's only scored three goals—the same total he had in one game against the Hoyas.
To give Jones his credit, he's been playing against higher caliber defenses. Notre Dame came into Koskinen Stadium Saturday with the top-ranked defense in the ACC and the 12th ranked defense in the nation. UNC held Virginia to six goals and held one of the other top middies in the game, Ryan Tucker, scoreless. Syracuse was no slouch of an opponent either—they're ranked in the top 20 in terms of points against too.
But that's no excuse for a player poised to become the most prolific offensive midfielder in Duke history. Jones only needs 11 points to pass Jim Gonnella as the all-time leading Blue Devil point getter from the midfield.
There's no reason for the junior to not be dominant.
When Jones is at his best, he uses his physical gifts to beat his opponents with one powerful dodge up top and quickly rip a shot or find the open man.
Lately that has not been the case. Instead of playing patiently, Jones has tried to make extra moves to force himself into the heart of defenses, and good opponents have made him pay with turnovers.
In the past three games, Jones has lead his team in turnovers in every single game and piled up a total of 12. 
Jones's stick work has never been his strong suit. He's a great player because of his whale of a shot and his ability to bully defenders to draw double teams.

But we haven't seen that Myles Jones as of late.
If Duke wants to get over this three game skid and mold itself back into the championship contender everyone thought they were early this season, it's going to start with finding that Myles Jones again—the man they hope to be the real Myles Jones.