By R.L. Bynum
The similarities to last season continue for a Carolina women’s lacrosse team that’s ready to flip the script.
Just like last season, the Tar Heels beat Stony Brook to enter the Final Four undefeated, No. 1-ranked and No. 1 seeded, taking a 20-game unbeaten streak into a national semifinal against a team they defeated handily at home. In both cases, that earlier win was on March 6.
A year ago, Boston College, which UNC blew out 21–9 in March, ousted the Tar Heels 11–10 in the semifinals on its way to a national championship. A year later, to the day, of that early-season win over BC, Carolina rolled over Northwestern by a similar score of 20–9.
UNC (20–0) hopes there are no more similarities when the Tar Heels meet the No. 4-seed Wildcats (16–4) at 12:30 p.m. Friday in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field (ESPN News) in search of their first appearance in the NCAA championship game since their second title in 2006.
With a talented group of transfers and a different mindset, there’s reason to believe it will go differently for the Tar Heels.
“I think that the mindset has been changed all year with this team,” said UNC coach Jenny Levy, who is seeking her third NCAA title. “Just because we’re different. It’s a different team. It’s a different year, different leadership. It’s been a different feel this year. Not anything against last year’s team. I thought they were great. We didn’t finish the job last year.”
Notre Dame graduate transfer Andi Aldave (50 goals, 11 assists), Richmond graduate transfer Sam Geiersbach (29 goals, 25 assists, left in top photo), both attackers, Penn State transfer midfielder Oliva Dirks (19 goals, 4 assists) and freshman defender Brooklyn Walker-Welch (9 goals, 2 assists) only know what they’ve heard from teammates about how last season went. None of them know what it’s like to lose a game as a Tar Heel.
The three transfers have made what would have already been a powerhouse team even better.
“I think they’re a piece of our puzzle. Each one brings a different strength that helps us be as good as we can be,” Levy said “I just think it helps our current players realize how lucky they have it here. I think it’s fun for other guys to see and hear, just that they’re in a special place.”
There are plenty of returning players who are intent on making the most of another chance at a title, led by record-breaking, five-time All-America fifth-year Jamie Ortega (64 goals, 41 assists), sophomore midfielder Caitlyn Wurzburger (31 goals, ninth in country with 42 assists) and fifth-year goaltender Taylor Moreno (20–0, third in the country GAA of 8.13 GAA, eighth in the country 50.3% save percentage).
“I do think my returning players from that team do have some urgency in how they’re feeling about walking into a Final Four, really evaluating our play at this point,” Levy said. “I feel a different type of focus from our group this year than we did a year ago. I thought maybe just going through that process of being undefeated and getting a lot of attention kind of dulled us a bit. But this year, I don’t feel that at all.”
Carolina leads the country in points per game (26.5), assists per game (9.35) and scoring margin (9.05); second in goals per game (17.15); third in shot percentage (50.5%); and fourth in clearing percentage (92.5%) and scoring defense (8.1 goals per game).
Battling to an 8–5 quarterfinals victory over Stony Brook was a tough test for a Carolina team that hadn’t previously scored fewer than 14 goals all season. Ortega was held without a goal for only the second time this season and the Tar Heels had to make adjustments against the Seawolves to survive and make it back to the Final Four.
Levy said that she loved the game because multiple players came through to help the UNC pull out the victory, something she knows will be needed this weekend.
“I think it challenged us both physically and mentally, where we had to find a way to compete at the highest level while we’re getting stressed and find a way through it,” Levy said. “And I think that that showed another way that our team can find a way to win which we’ve done all season in all sorts of circumstances. I feel like our team, both physically and mentally, is very prepared for any challenge that we that we have in front of us this coming weekend.”
Both Levy and Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller played down the earlier matchup when six Tar Heels scored and UNC led 8–4 at halftime. It was Carolina’s eighth consecutive victory over the Wildcats and 10th in the last 11 meetings.
“That early game in March doesn’t really have much bearing on what’s going to happen on Friday,” Levy said. “I think it’s a new game and both teams are gonna probably come out and do some things that are very typical of our teams and then things that might be some small tweaks.”
Hiller knows her team faces plenty of challenges dealing with UNC’s athleticism.
“They’re just really dynamic across the board,” Hiller said. “Offensively they’re definitely hard to stop; you have to play good team defense. We have to play great team lacrosse and we have to all step up and be ready to make plays and that’s what it takes at this level.”
Graduate attacker Lauren Gilbert leads Northwestern with 74 goals and 26 assists, with junior attacker Erin Coykendall adding 44 goals and 35 assists. Gilbert had four goals and an assist against the Tar Heels.
The 20 goals UNC scored were the most the Wildcats gave up all season, with the next-highest in a 17–16 Feb. 23 win over Notre Dame.
NCAA Final Four
At Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field, Baltimore
No. 1-seed North Carolina (20–0) vs. No. 4-seed Northwestern (16–4), 12:30 p.m., ESPN News
No. 2-seed Maryland (19–1) vs. No. 3-seed Boston College (18–3), 3 p.m., ESPNU
Semifinal winners, noon, ESPN
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications