No. 1 UNC women’s lacrosse reloads after unbeaten season, off to dominant start

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — Even after losing six multiple-year All-Americans from last season’s undefeated national champions, the No. 1 North Carolina’s women’s lacrosse team doesn’t look any less dominant.

With the type of leadership junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger gave the Tar Heels on Wednesday, they look hard to beat again.

Behind Wurzburger’s seven points (four goals, three assists), UNC (2–0) cruised to an 18–6 victory over Liberty on Wednesday at Dorrance Field for its 23rd consecutive win, 42nd consecutive regular-season victory and a program-record 34th straight home victory.

“We’ve had a lot of athletes who’ve been training against that talent for the past couple of years and now it’s their time to shine,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said of the 28 returnees, including four starters.

It’s too early to tell if this season’s group can reach the same heights. But the Tar Heels never let up, scoring goals in the final second of each of the first two quarters, with freshmen scoring half the goals.

Unranked Liberty, which was playing its opener after going 11–8 last season, was no match for the Tar Heels.

Wurzburger, coming off a 76-point season, senior defender Emily Nalls and fifth-year defender Brooklyn Walker-Welch are the top returnees. Also back is defender Julia Dorsey, who helped the women’s soccer team make the NCAA championship game.

“I’ve definitely been fortunate as a player to be under some great fifth-years and All-Americans and, honestly, just great people to be around and lean on the past few years I’ve been at Carolina,” said Wurzburger, who is eighth in program history in career saves with 65. “But I think we also have great leadership back.”

Wurzberger, the other nine seniors and the seven juniors have lost once in their Carolina careers, and the 11 sophomores still don’t know what it’s like to lose a college game. She said that the national championship goal remains the same.

“I think it’s really fortunate,” Wurzberger said of only tasting defeat once. “But you always have a target on your back, and you come here for a reason. You want to play the best, and you want to be the best. You’re lucky to even feel that and have that pressure. Pressure is a privilege at North Carolina, and I’m excited.”

The Tar Heels’ expectations are sky-high, but Levy said that’s nothing new for her program.

“You come to the University of North Carolina, I don’t think it’s even something that we think about, quite honestly,” said Levy, who has won three titles at UNC. “For us, we have our culture and we have standards and both of them are very high.

“I think expectations — when you choose to come to North Carolina, it’s because you want to be challenged, you want to play at the highest level,” Levy said. “We don’t really talk a lot about expectations bogging us down because I think the athletes here welcome those challenges.”

Maintaining the Tar Heels’ dominance would show plenty of program resilience as they move on without those six who earned national honors in multiple seasons. Gone are attacker Jamie Ortega (UNC’s career goals and points leader), attacker Sam Geiersbach (NCAA tournament most outstanding player), attacker Scottie Rose Growney, midfielder Ally Mastroianni, goalie Taylor Moreno and defender Emma Trenchard.

“Graduation happens in college. There’s no franchising players for the long haul,” Levy said. “Wurzy has done a great job of being a big part of our offense the past two years and learning from Jamie and Scottie and Katie Hoeg. And now it’s her turn to lead, and that’s typically what you want in your program.”

Geiersbach and another key player from last season’s team, attacker Andie Aldave, are graduate assistant coaches. The staff includes first-year assistant coach Marie McCool, a two-time Tewaaraton Award finalist and one of the most decorated players in program history.

Two freshman attackers, Marissa White and Reilly Casey, are doing their part to replace the missing scoring. White has six goals in two games, five in the 14–9 season-opening win over No. 12 James Madison and one against Liberty. Casey has 10 points, with six (three goals and three assists) against JMU and four (three goals and two assists) on Wednesday.

“We have a great freshman class that’s contributing all over, both on the defensive end, or midfield, and on the offensive end,” Levy said.

Sophomore goalie Alecia Nicholas is off to a stellar start replacing four-year starter Moreno. 

Against James Madison, she produced the third UNC game with at least 14 saves in the past five seasons — earning ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors. She only needed to make eight saves Wednesday before giving way to redshirt sophomore Stella Harrison in the last two minutes.

Returning players accounted for 30.4% of the points last season. Levy welcomed eight freshmen, six who earned All-American honors, and two transfers in junior midfielder Sophie Student (from Virginia Tech) and fifth-year attacker Lauren Figura (Saint Joseph’s). Student had a team-higih seven draw controls.

UNC fell behind by two goals twice early (2–0 and 3–1) after Liberty scored on two of its first three shots, with goals from Jordan Sheive and Lizzy Ferguson in the first 5½ minutes. It was all Carolina after the teams traded goals (from freshman UNC attacker Kiley Mottice and Liberty’s Cami Merkel), with a 13–1 run that extended into the third quarter.

White got a transition goal off of an Alyssa Long assist, then Wurzburger scored twice in the last 21.9 seconds of the first quarter to give UNC a 4–3 lead after one quarter. She got off the shot on the second goal just before the buzzer.  

With Casey’s two goals in the first 1:37 of the second quarter, the Heels were rolling. She scored on a free-position shot before flicking in a loose ball from the ground in front of the goal mouth. UNC added goals from Wurzburger, Casey, freshman midfielder Kaleigh Harden and freshman midfielder Darcy Felter to lead 11–4 at halftime.

Caitlyn Wurzburger says that you come here for a reason. “You want to play the best, and you want to be the best.”

“Our offense has always been about balance,” said Levy, who had eight players score. “That’s how Carolina likes to play lacrosse, where you have seven threats on the offensive side and making sure that there’s good leadership, spacing and selflessness. When you play collectively like that, it becomes really hard to beat because you’re reading the defense and what they’re giving you.”

Felter scored an extra-player goal Heels added scores from Mottice and Harden, and two each from freshman attacker Carolina Godine and sophomore attacker Mackenzie Rich.

NOTES —  Carolina is home again at noon Saturday against No. 7 Florida (ACC Network). The Gators (1–0), beat No. 17 Michigan on Sunday 17–8. Florida won the American Athletic Conference title and lost 18–5 to Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals to finish 18–5. … Levy, the program’s only head coach, is three away from her 400th career victory, ranking third in NCAA history. … This was UNC’s 59th double-figure scoring game in the last 61 and 51st in the last 52. … Carolina has won all three meetings with Liberty. .. Dorsey, Nalls and Walker-Welch each had two ground balls as UNC had an 11–10 edge.

No. 1 UNC 18, Liberty 6

(current rank)
11Sat.14–9 WNo. 7 James MadisonHome1–0
15Wed.18–6 WLibertyHome2–0
18Sat.12–5 WNo. 6 FloridaHome3–0
24Friday10–6 WVirginia TechBlacksburg, Va.4–0,
1–0 ACC
3Friday16–5 WNo. 2 Boston CollegeHome5–0,
2–0 ACC
11Sat.17–12 WNo. 12 VirginiaHome6–0,
3–0 ACC
16Thurs.20–7 WLouisvilleLouisville7–0,
4–0 ACC
19Sunday13–9 LNo. 1 NorthwesternEvanston, Ill.7–1
23Thurs.22–4 WHigh PointHome8–1
26Sunday17–8 WClemsonHome9–1,
5–0 ACC
1Sat.16–12 LNo. 7 Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.9–2,
5–1 ACC
7Friday16–3 WPittsburghHome10–2,
6–1 ACC
11Tuesday12–8 WEast CarolinaGreenville11–2
15Sat.14–12 LNo. 3 SyracuseHome11–3,
6–2 ACC
20Thurs.13–12 WDukeDurham12–3,
7–2 ACC
ACC Tournament
26Wed.16–6 WQuarterfinals
vs. Clemson
28Friday15–9 WSemifinals
vs. No. 3 Syracuse
30Sunday11–9 LChampionship:
vs. No. 2 Boston College
MayNCAA tournament
12Friday16–5 WFirst round:
Sacred Heart
14Sunday16–12 WSecond round:
No. 17 Richmond
18Thurs.5–4 LQuarterfinals:
No. 5 Denver

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications



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