Unbeaten UNC has been here before but is in different place

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina women’s lacrosse stars have been here before — undefeated, top-ranked, No. 1 seed and in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.

The Tar Heels (18–0) are in the same situation as a year ago, facing Stony Brook at Dorrance Field with a Final Four berth on the line.

But five-time All-America attacker Jamie Ortega says that they are in a different place as they prepare to play the No. 8-ranked Seawolves (16–2) at 7:30 Thursday night (ESPNU).

The weight of an unbeaten record isn’t as daunting.

“Last year, I just felt like we were playing because we were scared to lose and ruin our record. And this year, we’re playing to win,” Ortega said who is 80–9 as a Tar Heel, with one last shot at a national championship.

Being undefeated heading into the postseason was new to everybody on last season’s team, and Ortega said that Carolina’s mindset wasn’t right. It showed in Tar Heels’ play in the early rounds and in their season-ending 11–10 national semifinal loss to eventual NCAA champion Boston College. It was not only the Tar Heels’ lone defeat last season, it was their first loss in 735 days after going 7–0 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“Last year, just the energy from the sideline to the starters to every position, it just wasn’t as contagious, it wasn’t as energetic,” said Ortega, the ACC career scoring leader with 457 points. “There’s a lot of pressure in our playoff games leading to the Final Four. We didn’t play to our standard, a little sloppier. We just weren’t all collectively on the same page. And you saw that in the Final Four game and I think this year, we’re on the same page. And that’s so exciting.”

The difference was evident with clean play as UNC dominated possession and draws early in Sunday’s 24–2 second-round home demolition of No. 15-ranked Virginia. The level of play in scoring the first 13 goals was the Tar Heels’ best all season. In last season’s 14–9 second-round win over James Madison, UNC trailed by two early before winning 14–9.

The Cavaliers were helpless to slow the offensive onslaught as Carolina broke the program record for goals in an NCAA tournament game, tying the record for any game.

Coach Jenny Levy, in her 27th season in Chapel Hill, knows what it takes to win a national title after her teams won it all in 2013 and 2016. Levy is all for her players trying to maximize their potential but saw some of the downside last season when the happiness level didn’t match the victory total.

“I feel like our kids felt like they needed to be perfect,” Levy said. “And the burden on that took away some of the joy.”

Levy remembers that some of her players weren’t celebrating last season’s win in the ACC championship game because they were disappointed in how they played. She had to encourage them to celebrate the moment.

“We really tried to understand enjoying moments — not that we didn’t last year — I just think COVID really challenged all teams to find ways to be together and have chemistry and get to know each other,” Levy said. “Our program is always based off of relationships. We’ve always been a heavy relationship-based program. And with that energy, we can tap into a lot of different things.”

Ortega said the team’s attitude is different during this NCAA run, with teammates celebrating every positive play in addition to goals during each game, whether it be a draw control, causing a turnover, or goalkeeper Taylor Moreno making a big stop.

“Everything is really being celebrated and, gosh, it’s something I’m so excited to be a part of,” said Ortega, whose career goal total of 329 is third all-time in NCAA history. “This year, it feels like nothing can really stop us if we just continue to be this way and just play for one another and a lot of ‘got you back.’ ”

Two-time All-America midfielder Ally Mastroianni, right, celebrates a North Carolina goal during Sunday’s victory over Virginia with attacker Andie Aldave. Both players are graduate students.

Two-time All-America midfielder Ally Mastroianni loves what last season’s team accomplished but agrees that the team’s mentality is very different from a year ago.

“This year, it’s just good vibes all over,” she said. “From our starters to people on our bench, we are all just so connected. Our relationships are so strong and there’s so much passion and love for this team and it’s showing on the field and it’s showing with our energy and synergy. It’s all flowing and it’s amazing vibes. Everyone’s just really excited for every day that we get together.”

It’s a veteran team that includes three 2022 first-team USA Lacrosse All-Americans in Ortega, Mastroianni and fifth-year senior defender Emma Trenchard (the ACC defender of the year), with Moreno, a graduate student, on the second team. The depth of talent is what makes UNC a national powerhouse and it showed when 14 players scored in the blowout of Virginia.

Senior attacker Scottie Rose Growney (top photo) scored three goals and assisted on another against the Cavaliers and has 21 goals and four assists in the last five games.

The different approach doesn’t mean Carolina isn’t pushing to get better.

“I think this year, we have had many challenging games and we have found a way to win in a lot of different ways,” said Mastroianni, the ACC midfielder of the year. “So, there’s a few games in my mind where I know we won, but it kind of feels like we lost. We’re so hard on ourselves that we’re always striving to get better and find ways to win. I think we’re feeling really confident going through the tournament because we know whatever comes at us, we can find a way.”

One more win will give each player on this team a chance to advance to the NCAA championship game for the first time. The Tar Heels seem to have the right attitude to make that happen and possibly break through for the school’s first NCAA title in six years.

NCAA bracket

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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