College lacrosse: ‘The pressure is off’ UNC men as they ready to defend their national title
It's 7:45 a.m. on a Monday. While most college students are still snuggled in their beds or are trudging to their 8 a.m. class, North Carolina's defending national champion lacrosse team already is watching film and discussing how to improve. By 8:15, cleats are hitting the field putting words into action.
Last year at this time was a whole different story. The Tar Heels were struggling with massive player losses. Eleven seniors had graduated from a team that had suffered a rough loss to Maryland in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals the year before. Everyone on the team was hungry simply to break the Tar Heels’ 23-year streak of not making it to the semifinals of the national tournament.
Though they stumbled plenty in the regular season, that young squad broke that streak and more, winning the school's first national lacrosse title since 1991, the fifth in UNC history.
The Tar Heels look to be a lot more consistent this year, thanks to the lessons learned from 2016. "We are in a great spot,” said preseason All-American senior defenseman Austin Pifani. “We are way ahead where we were this time last year.”
Head coach Joe Breschi, who has more than 175 career wins and was the 2016 USILA Coach of the Year, said even though his team lost six seniors, the 2017 team still boasts a large number of standout leaders and young players that show a lot of promise.
That has the lacrosse faithful around Chapel Hill thinking big. Again.
“We have been to the top and know what it feels like to win," said redshirt senior midfielder Michael Tagliaferri, "and we are all ready to go back to that point.”
The difference between this year and last, according to Breschi, is that this year the weight of all those non-championship years is gone.
“Now, [the players] can play free and fast without being paralyzed by pressure,” he said.
His players will still play with the same intensity and toughness as previous years, Breschi said. But this go-round they can have more fun with it.
“The spotlight is on us as the preseason No. 1,” said Breschi. “But, I really want these guys to look deep inside themselves and focus on taking care of their body, taking care of their academics and taking care of each other as a teammate and a brother.”
Still, the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels have challenges to face.
“I don’t think that is anything we are not used to,” Tagliaferri said.
Last year, the team entered the tournament 8-6, which certainly didn’t make UNC look like the team to beat. That changes this year.
Tagliaferri noted that, while every team gets up for UNC, he is most looking forward to facing the teams that the Tar Heels lost to last year -- Hofstra, Denver, Maryland and Syracuse -- as well as other big ACC teams and rivals like Duke.
“Our schedule is certainly one of the toughest in the country,” said Breschi. “We don’t look past anybody.”
|Sat, Feb 04||UMBC||Chapel Hill, N.C.||3:00 PM|
|Sat, Feb 11||Furman||at Greenville, S.C.||12:00 PM|
|Sat, Feb 18||Lehigh||Chapel Hill, N.C.||1:00 PM|
|Sat, Feb 25||Johns Hopkins||Chapel Hill, N.C.||1:00 PM|
|Sat, Mar 04||Denver||at Denver, Colo.||1:30 PM|
|Sat, Mar 11||Hofstra||Chapel Hill, N.C.||2:30 PM|
|Mon, Mar 13||Richmond||Chapel Hill, N.C.||7:00 PM|
|Sat, Mar 18||Dartmouth||Chapel Hill, N.C.||7:30 PM|
|Sat, Mar 25||Maryland||Chapel Hill, N.C.||11:30 AM|
|Sun, Apr 02||Duke *||Chapel Hill, N.C.||7:00 PM|
|Sun, Apr 09||Virginia *||at Charlottesville, Va.||7:00 PM|
|Sat, Apr 15||Syracuse *||Chapel Hill, N.C.||4:00 PM|
|Sat, Apr 22||Notre Dame *||at Notre Dame, Ind.||12:00 PM|
|Fri, Apr 28||Semifinal Game #1||Durham, N.C.||6:00 PM|
|Fri, Apr 28||Semifinal Game #2||Durham, N.C.||8:30 PM|
|Sun, Apr 30||Final||Durham, N.C.||12:00 PM|
Breschi said he expects to see a UNC team with a high-scoring, up-tempo offense and aggressive defense.
“We are a family, and we’re an exciting group that plays with a lot of energy,” Pifani said. “I expect a lot out of our group.”
Is another shot at the title in the cards for 2017?
“We definitely have the guys, the talent and the coaches to get us there," said Tagliaferri.
The Tar Heels start their season on their own turf on Feb. 4 at 3 p.m. ET against UMBC, who posted a 4-10 record last year and was tabbed to finish fifth in the America East Conference.