Any supporter of North Carolina athletics is probably aware that the school’s hockey team is pretty good.
Okay, very good.
The program has won back-to-back national championships, has the most winning coach in college hockey history, and recently won its fourth ACC title in a row. But despite these accolades, the Tar Heels still have to navigate a challenging line of opponents in their post-season game.
On Sunday, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels did just that with a 2-0 win over Stanford.
Despite being unbeaten in the spring season, UNC looked vulnerable in the last four games and needed extra time to keep its winning streak intact. Against Virginia and Syracuse, the Tar Heels were out of reach and cornered. They managed to bypass Wake Forest in those divisions in the automatic qualifier ACC, but only benefited from a score on one corner.
Head coach Karen Shelton knew that limiting Stanford’s penalty corners in the NCAA quarterfinals was the most important strategy to avoid more overtime.
I thought it was crucial to the game and our success; we had to stop the penalty corner, Shelton said. (Stanford’s) Corinne Zanolli is an excellent player, but her drag on the penalty corner is deadly. We knew that if we gave up many corners, we would be faced with an extreme threat.
The Tar Heels stuck to their strategy in the first half, leaving Stanford with no penalty corners, while scoring three themselves. The final corner, inserted by sophomore midfielder Paityn Wirth, was shot to the back of the cage by Redshirt junior back Cassie Sumfest for UNC’s first goal of the day.
Continued pressure from North Carolina left the Cardinal struggling to build up plays after passing their centerline, resulting in a winless third quarter. In the fourth, UNC continued its attacking tenacity with five total shots on target, and with only three minutes to go, junior forward Erin Matson rebounded and sealed the victory with a final goal in the top corner of the net.
I think we put a huge emphasis on just putting a lot of pressure on them, Sumfest said. That was a huge success for us in cornering, achieving goals, and getting results.
After briefly celebrating their victory, the Tar Heels did something unusual. They joined one large group with the other team.
In the fall, Stanford will drop 11 of its 36 varsity sports programs due to budgetary ramifications of the included pandemic hockey.
They fight and scratch to keep their program intact, Shelton said. It would be a shame for a program that is so strong and competitive if the program is canceled.
Shelton and the players have shown their support for the Cardinal behind the scenes by signing petitions, communicating with social media posts, and even writing and signing a letter to send to Stanford’s athletic director.
At the end of the day, you know, we came out on top and were proud of how we played and got the W, but it’s not all about Stanford-UNC, Matson said. It’s about hockey in general and we’re trying to grow it in America. I think we’ve made it clear to them that it’s all a family and it’s not even our two teams, it’s the hockey community that comes together.
North Carolina will play against Iowa in the semi-final on Friday and possibly the winner of the Michigan-Louisville game in the NCAA Championship.
The Tar Heels have not had it against Iowa or Michigan since they defeated both programs in the 2019 ACC Big Ten Challenge and Iowa again in the second round of the NCAA tournament of the same year. Louisville is the only team to beat UNC since 2017, which happened on October 2.
North Carolina’s remaining road to the championship will take place exclusively at Shelton Stadium, where the team has yet to lose one game since it opened in 2018.
We were really excited to host, so it’s clear we want to be in that national championship game, but we can’t get there unless we win on Friday, Sumfest said. Just focusing on playing our game, keeping it simple and fighting is really important.
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