March 29, 2010

Mondays with Matt: Carolina Turns the Corner

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Despite a rash of injuries to top players, North Carolina coach Joe Breschi has mined the team's depth during its 9-0 start.

© Peyton Williams

After eight years of unmet expectations, the catharsis in Carolina is complete.

It took Joe Breschi just 21 months to make people forget about the doldrums of the John Haus era, to make the trip down Tobacco Road something to be feared again, to convert the Tar Heels from softies to bullies in the ACC.

“We’re back,” Breschi said after North Carolina gutted out a 9-7 win over Maryland on Saturday, its first win over the Terps at Fetzer Field since 1996. “I just credit the coaching staff and players. I’m so proud of their effort and energy. They’ve committed to being champions.”

And while the Chapel Hill faithful won’t be entirely satisfied until the Tar Heels win their first national championship since 1991, Saturday’s victory was symbolic of the program’s return to prominence. It was the kind of game in which, if it happened five years ago, you would have expected them to fold like a cheap tent.

First came the news 20 minutes before opening faceoff that star attackman Billy Bitter would not be active due to a leg injury. Team doctors had monitored Bitter’s status since Wednesday, but could not clear him.

“It was the right thing to do,” Breschi said.

Then All-American midfielder Sean DeLaney left the game after scoring with 12:15 left in the third quarter, DeLaney clutching his shoulder and North Carolina clinging to a 5-4 lead. He took a hit from 6-foot-4, 230-pound defenseman Max Schmidt, bounced to his feet and asked teammates, “Did I score? Did I score?”

DeLaney would not return.

But the “killer instinct” Breschi talked about instilling in the November 2008 issue in Lacrosse Magazine, on which he appeared on the cover, was palpable Saturday. Minus their top two players, the Tar Heels did not relent.

Freshman attackman Thomas Holman did his best Bitter impression, notching four goals. Freshman Ian Braddish stepped onto the first midfield line in place of DeLaney. Breschi even moved midfielder Jimmy Dunster down to attack when UNC needed fresh legs there.

That next-man-up mentality has helped the Tar Heels remain unbeaten (9-0) during a season that could have otherwise been crippled by injuries. They lost starting midfielder Sean Burke (head) for the season, were without starting attackman Gavin Petracca (knee) for the first two games and have yet to unearth the full potential of junior college transfer Ed Prevost (shoulder).

“Hey, we’re a great team,” DeLaney said. “Everyone’s always working hard in all practices, getting ready if someone’s not there.”

Both Bitter and DeLaney were expected to be evaluated Monday after Sunday’s day off. Breschi did not return phone calls Monday morning.

 “Losing our top two scorers and probably our two best players, everyone had to dig deep and just make the extra plays,” Holman said Saturday.

Added Breschi: “That’s the character of this team.”

And a testament to the job Breschi has done instilling it.


Holman’s big game was no anomaly. In fact, it was symptomatic of a trend that has made the fourth attackman as integral a position as a long stick middie or faceoff specialist.

A competent, No. 4 attackmen gives coaches lineup flexibility, poses match-up problems for man-to-man defenses that might have prepared for specific assignments, keeps legs fresh and provides different looks for extra-man offense.

Take a look at the top teams – they’re all four deep at the attack position.

* Virginia has Connor English to complement Steele Stanwick, Chris Bocklet and Matt White.

* Syracuse has Tim Desko as its change-of-pace attackman, contributing on man-up and spelling Chris Daniello, Stephen Keogh and Cody Jamieson.

* North Carolina certainly needed Holman on Saturday.

* Maryland actually rolls five deep with Grant Catalino, Ryan Young, Travis Reed, Will Yeatman and Joe Cummings. It helps that Catalino, Reed, Yeatman and Cummings can run midfield.

*  Duke boasts similar flexibility with Will McKee’s ability to play both attack and midfield and Josh Offit waiting in the wings on attack.

* Georgetown’s top scorer, Travis Comeau (13g), comes off the bench. His playing time was curiously limited in the Hoyas’ 15-10 loss to Duke on Saturday.

* Despite its recent struggles (three straight losses), Johns Hopkins has discovered some offensive depth with Zach Palmer’s ability to play both midfield and attack, as well as Tom Palasek contributing two goals in each of the last two games as the fourth attackman -- both developments coming in the wake of Chris Boland’s season-ending knee injury.

One might single out the 2008 NCAA men’s lacrosse championships as the catalyst for this trend. That year, Keogh came off the bench for Syracuse, and Hopkins had no answer for the shifty Canadian, who scored two goals and messed up the Jays’ defensive schemes. In the Division II championship game, then-NYIT head coach Jack Kaley dispatched Ryan Amengual, who likewise came off the bench to score three goals.

Four-man fronts are byproducts of depth, the most tangible sign of a team’s championship readiness.

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