Feb. 26, 2010

By Amy Farnum

The University of North Carolina women's lacrosse program reached new heights last season as the Tar Heels appeared in their first-ever national championship game, and with a strong returning contingent from the 2009 squad, they have their sights set even higher this year.

Last season's final game may not have had the result the Tar Heels were hoping for as they lost 21-7 to Northwestern, winner of five straight NCAA titles, but the experience certainly has energized this year's team that returns 10 starters, including national player of the year candidate Jenn Russell, 2009 national goalkeeper of the year Logan Ripley.

"We want to make sure we don't forget last season - the good and the bad, but we still need to realize this is a new team with different people playing different roles," said Russell. "We're really excited for the opportunity to have another go at it. We've had a good start, and definitely have a lot to build upon and to get better at."

The fourth-ranked Tar Heels are off to a 3-0 start, including a 12-6 victory over then-No. 11 Vanderbilt.

"We didn't like how it ended against Northwestern, and that's certainly driven us in the off-season," said head coach Jenny Levy. "We have performed in practice at a very high level, starting in September. For me as a coach, that is great to see because these kids have continued their intensity with their training and integrity, which we define as bridging the gap between what you say and what you do."

The flawless start is a good beginning, but like last year, Levy is looking for improvement with every game, especially with a regular season slate that concludes with three straight contests against Top 5 teams -- Maryland, Duke and Northwestern.

"I'm encouraged by some of the things I've seen, but certainly not content," said Levy. "I'm encouraged because we've had absolute moments of brilliance, but not content because I think we can be better. We're working towards playing 60 minutes at the highest level possible."

Russell's two-way play is one of the keys to the Tar Heels' success. She led last year's squad in both goals and caused turnovers.

"Jenn is a tremendous player, and her game has really jumped in the past two years," said Levy. "She has worked really hard to become the player she is today. She's also a tremendous leader and very vocal on the field. What she demands of others, she also does herself and anytime one of the best players on your team is also your hardest-working player, it's great as a coach."

While Levy notes Russell's influence on the squad, the star player is pleased with her teammates' dedication to making her final year a success.

"We have people in all grades stepping up and taking leadership roles, and holding themselves accountable," said Russell. "Everyone is focused and realizing how important it is not just to let the time pass."

North Carolina hosts Oregon on Feb. 26, and Florida - a team in its first varsity season - on Feb. 28, as the Tar Heels look to build upon their outstanding start. The Tar Heels have won 10 straight games at Fetzer Field entering the weekend.

"There are a lot of teams out there this year that have a group that thinks they can do something special," said Levy. "It's not going to be given to any team. They've got to go out and get it."