Playing for keeps
UNC freshman Ward earns starting job, carries Heels' defense
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Before everyone else witnessed the brilliance of freshman Megan Ward between the pipes, Kara Cannizzaro saw it every day. Day in and day out at North Carolina practices, one of the nation's top scorers saw her best offensive advances thwarted.
“After shooting on Megan [Ward] all year and having her stuff all of my shots, I have the confidence that if I get beat or give up a good shot she’s going to come up with a huge save no matter who’s shooting or where they’re shooting from,” senior midfielder Cannizzaro said. “She’s only a freshman -- I don’t know how she does it -- but it’s amazing.”
This is why head coach Jenny Levy decided to make one of her most difficult decisions. After starting senior Lauren Maksym and letting Ward finish games, she installed her 5-foot-2 freshman as the full-time starter in the Tar Heels' final regular-season game before the ACC tournament, following an extensive study of video and statistics.
On Friday night, Ward helped North Carolina set a dominant early tone, making spectacular stops on Northwestern standouts Erin Fitzgerald and Taylor Thornton before her teammates broke down the opposing defense for a couple of quick goals.
Before Fitzgerald readied herself for a free-position shot, Ward bounded up and down inside of the goal circle. When Fitzgerald made her move, Ward focused and deflected an up-close shot off to the side.
“We're in a great situation where we have two good goalies,” Levy said. “Going into the postseason it was a tough decision, but we made the switch. Meg's really -- as you guys saw [Friday night] -- really good.
“You have to have a goalkeeper who can make saves if you want to advance. The goalie's key, and you have to have a kid who can stop the ball. I think she is going to have a great weekend.”
More than just the brilliance of Ward and her nine saves between the pipes, the North Carolina defense did a stellar of job of mixing looks to confuse Northwestern. Even when the Wildcats seemed to have prime scoring chances, Ward and the defense denied them. The Wildcats finished with an unfathomable 0-for-9 on free-position opportunities.
"We switched up our defense and every one of our defenders played so well," Ward said. "I feel really confident going into the championship game because our team played so well."
UNC will be making just its second title-game appearance Sunday night. For the Tar Heels to hoist their first championship trophy and join the storied title traditions established by their department's women's soccer and field hockey teams, they must overcome No. 1 Maryland (22-0). The Terps beat the Tar Heels twice earlier this season: 14-13 on April 6 and 12-8 on April 28 in the ACC title game.
“I'm sure we'll be the underdog again .. that's okay by us. But we don't really talk about being the underdog,” Levy said. “We talk about how we want to play. We're going to come up and really try to play our best, regardless of who the opponent is.”