March 30, 2011

They Grow Up So Fast in Chapel Hill

by Gary Lambrecht |

Drawing opponents' top cover defenders, UNC attackman Billy Bitter has been content to defer to the Tar Heels' dangerous arsenal of underclassmen and help make them better.

© John Strohsacker/

When you're as young as the North Carolina men's lacrosse team is, you're capable of doing some unsightly things. You get run over by Ohio State in the ground ball battle in the season's second game, while falling apart in a 13-8 loss. You give up eight goals to Duke before you know what has hit you, and get out-hustled in a 14-9 loss to your archrival.

Or, you stroll into a place like College Park, get your defense knocked around throughout a disorganized, flat-footed, first quarter, and find yourself down by four goals before you've had a meaningful possession.

Conversely, when you're as young, gifted and talented as No. 5 Carolina is, you know that no one else is coming to the rescue, so you don't panic. You hang loose, assert your talent and swing hard. And you show the Terrapins you're about more than hype.

Nine days after getting whipped by Duke at home, the Tar Heels threw their most important counter-punch of the spring by storming back to an 11-6 victory Saturday over the Terps. And after watching key parts of the nation's most heralded recruiting class dismantle the older, more experienced Terps, one had to wonder if Carolina (7-2) had passed a season-changing test.

"It's still March, still early, but [the Maryland win] is still big, especially with the way we got peppered by Duke," Carolina senior defenseman Ryan Flanagan said. "We stepped on the right foot this time. This is huge going forward.

"We have a ton of talent here. We're going to take some bumps and bruises. There are going to be more of them along the way. We haven't handled some things well. [The seniors] have had to learn patience. But once these young guys get going and get some confidence, they're awfully good."

Nowhere was that more evident than at Maryland, where the freshmen, led by remarkable attackman Nicky Galasso, accounted for 14 of Carolina's 19 points, including seven of the Heels' eight assists.

Galasso (two goals, four assists) was fearless and creative with his passing, as he validated his position as arguably the game's most dynamic first-year player. After nine games, Galasso already has 16 goals and 20 assists. No Division I freshman has scored more points.

"People have talked badly about us," said Galasso, referring to those losses to Ohio State and Duke that revealed a soft belly on defense and exposed a lack of depth at midfield that still present potential problems for the Tar Heels. "But we've got to let that go in one ear and out the other. We've got a great class, we've got to keep moving, and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to do some great things."

The guard is changing dramatically in Chapel Hill, where seniors such as Flanagan and attackman Billy Bitter are on-field coaches and locker room cops as much as they are producers between the lines. Consider that Bitter, a serious, Tewaaraton Trophy candidate a month ago and one of the more wicked dodgers in the game, has not posted a single point in the two biggest wins this season – Saturday's come-from-behind blitz at Maryland and a 9-5 victory at Princeton on March 11.

Bitter commands the attention of the best cover guy on opposing defenses, and he has willingly deferred to the dangerous Carolina kids. They include Galasso and freshman attackman Pat Foster, who started in place of the injured Thomas Wood in College Park and dropped his first hat trick on Maryland. They include freshman midfielder Duncan Hutchins and freshman second-line midfielder Ryan Creighton, who combined for two goals and two assists against the Terps.

They also include some pretty fair sophomores, led by midfielder Marcus Holman, who leads the Heels with 18 goals and is second on the team with 23 points, and redshirt-sophomore goalie Steven Rastivo, who has taken the job from junior Chris Madalon and made 25 saves in two victories since then.

On Saturday, the Tar Heels also learned a valuable lesson. They can win on days when they are not firing smoothly. Freshman faceoff sensation R.G. Keenan had his first bad day, a 5-for-19 debacle against Terps sophomore Curtis Holmes, during which Keenan absorbed nasty collisions with Brian Farrell and Scott LaRue that left him woozy.

But third-year coach Joe Breschi switched to a vanilla zone defense after the first quarter, a change that left Maryland dysfunctional. The Terps took just six shots in the second and third quarters combined, while the Tar Heels were holding them scoreless for nearly 26 minutes and scoring eight unanswered goals.

"The turning point for us was Princeton. It was a nice win on the road, and I think it made the freshmen more confident coming [to Maryland]," said Breschi, whose Tar Heels now face another young, confident team coming off a win over a top five opponent in Johns Hopkins, which upset No. 2 Virginia on Saturday and will meet Carolina in the Konica Minolta Big City Classic on Sunday in the Meadowlands.

"All we keep telling the freshmen is to keep playing and good things will happen," Breschi added.

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