CHESTER, Penn. -- Stepping off the PPL Park turf Sunday night at halftime, only 30 minutes separated North Carolina from another NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse Championship celebration here in suburban Philadelphia.
Then the next 30 minutes elapsed and, unlike its last title game matchup against Maryland, the Tar Heels found themselves on the wrong side of a one-goal decision in the last game of the women's lacrosse season.
Even in Sunday night's 9-8 loss to No. 1 Maryland, this was still a significantly better outcome than a 2014 season that ended in the national quarterfinals amid a bunch of key injuries.
"I didn't mind the journey we had this year at all," UNC coach Jenny Levy said. "I think it's set us up to grow."
Several teams lose in championship games; learning to handle the pressures of the spotlight, before ultimately succeeding Sunday night's opponent, provided Exhibit A for the Tar Heels.
After losing five players to injuries for last year's tournament, then seeing top scorers Brittany Coppa and Molly Hendrick suffer knee injuries that severely limited the former and ended the latter's season, Levy did one of her best coaching jobs in meshing freshmen, players who had not played for significant stretches, and underclassmen like sophomore Maggie Bil, who assumed larger roles.
Sunday night provided a sneak peek into UNC’s future. Bill earned All-American accolades because of efforts like her three-goal, two-assist showing against the nation’s top defense.
Freshman Marie McCool, who grew up about 20 miles from here in Moorestown, New Jersey, scored once in each half to finish her first season with 26 goals. And sophomore Caylee Waters developed into one of the nation’s top goalies.
“I think it's good to have the experience,” Bill said. “We're going to be a different team next year and we're going to miss our seniors. We just need to keep our heads up and learn from it next year.”
Added McCool: “It’s been a really great freshman year.”
Of course, these are words easier to say than to fully understand moments after coming up one goal short in the season’s final game. However, Bill and her teammates understood how they succumbed to the relentless pressure of Maryland’s top-ranked defense, committing turnovers that enabled the champions to maintain possession and produce scoring chances that ensured the Tar Heels would not get to celebrate on this return trip to suburban Philadelphia.
“It was a tough game for us in the second half,” Levy said.
However, it would not be surprising to see UNC back under these bright lights this time next May, when Championship Weekend returns to PPL Park.
“We've worked hard. We deserved to be here,” Levy said. “Where we go from here? I think the future's very bright. We train our kids very well. We'll lose four defenders and we'll reload next year.”