North Carolina’s dynastic field hockey program shocked fans with its 0-2 record to kick off the season.
Last season, the team posted a record-breaking run of 47 games, before losing to Louisville in the fall. Before that, the Tar Heels had not lost two games in a row since 2013.
But last weekend, after dropping the first two games, North Carolina lifted the record to 2-2 with a 4-1 win against Princeton and a 9-1 blowout on Penn.
What we like about the schedule we’ve played so far is that it exposes our weaknesses and what areas need to be looked at and refined, said head coach Karen Shelton.
Those first two matchups weren’t just games No. 1 North Carolina played No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And those happened to be the two teams that UNC bulldozed into the Final Four last season for its third consecutive national championship.
We knew we had finished their season last year, said senior striker Meredith Sholder. They would be after blood.
The Tar Heels were less prepared for their season opener than usual with a shortened offseason, just a week of preseason and just one scrimmage under their belt. Unlike Michigan, which got almost all of its players back, UNC gained key pieces of defense, including goalkeeper Amanda Hendry and back Courtnie Williamson.
The Tar Heels showed their youth in the backfield during the game against Michigan. Still shuffling around positions, the players struggled to tie against the Michigan press in the first half, registering just two shots compared to the Wolverine’s six. North Carolina fought back in the second half but continued to miss the kill zone, leaving the final scoreboard 3-2 in Michigan’s favor.
With just one day of turnaround, the Tar Heels played Iowa. UNC’s attack proved inconsistent, playing from behind to defend against the Iowas-prepared front field. The team dropped its second game in a row, 3-1.
Back at Chapel Hill, the team returned to its motto: play for the person next to you.”
During the sports psychology session, the team discussed giving freshmen a voice and relying on the clock.
While we were on that field, we work hard for each other, said freshman forward Kennedy Cliggett. So one thing we’ve all talked about is support for each other.
To that end, UNC has drilled support on the field, as well as recovery runs and shooting. They also focused on their interception mentality on the defensive side by quickly repositioning themselves to anticipate balls in their defensive third.
UNC flew to Princeton on Thursday for the next round of away games. In addition to their training, the Tar Heels found confidence in the huge turnout at both games, as 14 of the team’s players are from Pennsylvania.
There were so many people who came to support us, even little girls came up to us and asked for our autographs and photos,” Sholder said. “It just means so much that we have those people behind us and supporting us.
North Carolina’s first game of the weekend also happened to be Princeton’s season opener, so UNC didn’t have a movie to watch the Tigers. Still, UNC pushed strategically, scoring goals in each of the four quarters with different scorers and blocking all but one of Princeton’s 12 shots.
Finally, after a much-needed win, the Tar Heels got to celebrate before scrambling to get ready for Penn on Sunday.
Against the Quakers, the Tar Heels finally got into their groove. With two-touch, selfless passing, the Tar Heels scored nine goals four by senior forward Erin Matson, totaling 87 goals in her career, breaking the UNC record of 84 goals in 1997.
Now, having dropped to number 4 in the rankings, the Tar Heels are gearing up for another weekend on the road, traveling to Philadelphia to play Saint Josephs and Drexel.
As it may seem, winning is not and has never been easy for UNC, despite the NCAA trophies affectionately known as Michelle, Prince and Mary proudly standing on their shelves.
These four games have proven that point and show why it’s so important to play tight, fast and in front of each other.
I did say to the team, ‘Do you want to win the first one?’ said Shelton. “Or do you want to win the last one?”
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