CHESTER, Penn. -- With a bulky ice pack taped to her balky right knee, Brittany Coppa hobbled into Friday night’s postgame press conference with a wide smile stretched across her face.
Less than a month ago, talking about the lone goal she scored in North Carolina’s 16-7 defeat of Duke seemed the most unlikely scenario for the unlucky standout. Because honestly, who would have expected this to become the feel-good moment of the Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship semifinals considering she is less than two months removed from tearing her second anterior cruciate knee ligament -- one in each knee -- in less than 16 months?Surgery could have ended the fifth-year senior’s collegiate career. Instead, a well-constructed brace and Coppa’s mental fortitude ensured that she would have at least a limited role in the No. 2 Tar Heels’ (18-3) championship run which continues Sunday night at PPL Park. They face top-seeded Maryland (20-1) on Sunday night for the Walnut and Bronze in a rematch of the 2013 title game -- a game in which she tallied a hat trick and assisted on the game-winning goal in triple overtime.
“It has been a long journey for me, the past two years, but I think doing it once made me more prepared for the second time it happened,” Coppa said. “I know that I’m hurt, but I don’t look at it as though I’m hurt. I just look at it as I have a new barrier to overcome.
“I’ve accepted my injury and I know I tore my ACL, but it’s not something I think about. It’s just me getting back on the field and helping my team as much as possible whether it’s on the sidelines or on the field.”
After tearing her left ACL during an exhibition game against the U.S. National Team in January 2014, prompting her to return to Chapel Hill for a fifth year, Coppa found her old form across the first half of 2015. The same form she displayed when the Tar Heels won their first national championship two springs ago.
And then it happened again April 4 against Louisville. Initially UNC coach Jenny Levy thought it was only a sprained ankle before Coppa confirmed the worst even before being examined.
“As a coach,” Levy said, “to see a kid like that go down again breaks your heart.”
Both the coach and student-athlete quickly cycled from shock to acceptance to finding a way for Coppa to somehow, against all odds, finish her final season since surgery would have ended her playing days. Soon after, Levy picked up the phone and researched how Northwestern’s Hilary Bowen and Maryland’s Tami Riley overcame their own injuries to resume playing -- even if their abilities were compromised.
After being fitted with a brace, Coppa relearned how to move. She kept in constant communication with Levy, her coaching staff, and UNC’s sports medicine staff so she could eventually make her return to the turf.
Although she came back for the Tar Heels’ first-round NCAA game against Florida and scored a goal, the moment paled compared to what unfolded Friday night just before halftime.
When Coppa’s only shot of the evening found the back of the net to give UNC a 7-4 lead 6.5 seconds before halftime, her teammates mobbed her in a feel-good moment for more than those who wear or bleed Carolina blue.
“Brittney is one of the toughest kids on our team, and one of our goals in this game was to play for her and we were able to accomplish that goal,” junior Aly Messinger said. “(Coppa’s goal) really pumped us up as a team and got us fired up for the second half.”
There could be another memorable moment Sunday night if the Tar Heels could cap Coppa’s career with a second national championship in three seasons -- especially if she scores another goal.
Regardless, Friday night provided a sweet moment for a student-athlete whose career has been bittersweet.
“It was awesome, definitely something that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Coppa said. “It has not exactly been the ending that I imagined, but I think that my team has done awesome job.
“(Friday) wasn’t about me or anyone in particular. At that moment I had the ball and there was only about 10 seconds left and I knew it was time to go and make a play. Definitely something that was great to celebrate together on the field and in the locker room at halftime, but it’s been a long process.”