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.