February 11, 2012

Season Preview (MD1): No. 6 North Carolina

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

North Carolina kicks off its season Saturday against Penn State at The Southern Showdown in Atlanta.
© Peyton Williams

North Carolina, a lacrosse program long on history, hasn't made an NCAA final four since 1993. That's before some of the current Tar Heels could walk.

But in coach Joe Breschi's fourth year at the helm, highly touted freshmen and big-name transfers have flocked to Chapel Hill. Expectations have elevated, with many believing Breschi will revive the baby blue juggernaut that ruled Division I in the 1980s and early '90s.

In Breschi's first two seasons, the Tar Heels have lost to Duke in the NCAA quarterfinals and to Maryland in the first round.

"We haven't won anything in 20 years. My big thing is let us win before saying we have all this talent," Breschi said.

Many of North Carolina's most celebrated players are natural attackmen. Sophomore Nicky Galasso, who underwent foot surgery in November but is expected back for the season, had a remarkable freshman campaign in which he led the team in points. Senior Thomas Wood is one of the best finishers this side of the Canadian border. Freshmen stop-and-go savants Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey impressed observers in the fall.

Davey Emala, Georgetown's leading scorer in 2011, and Jack McBride, a former All-American attackman at Princeton, both transferred to North Carolina as well.

Yet for all the talent coalescing at the attack, there remains only one ball and three open slots. So instead of relegating players to certain roles, the Tar Heels plan to play lots of people and continue to run converted attackmen through the box. Last season, former attackmen Marcus Holman and Pat Foster each played midfield. Emala is on the first line.

Holman, a junior captain who engineers the offense from the midfield, said the Tar Heels were more interested in carving out roles and developing chemistry during fall ball than worrying about touches.

"We've established since day one in the locker room to check your ego at the door. It's not about one or two guys," he said.

The offense will benefit from plenty of extra possessions. As a freshman, faceoff technician R.G. Keenan won 60 percent of his draws.

But the bigger question remains whether North Carolina has the long poles and defensive presence to consistently beat elite teams. Former USILA Defenseman of the Year Ryan Flanagan graduated from a defense that that ranked 25th in Division I last year.

Senior captain Charlie McComas, who missed the fall recovering from shoulder surgery, returns as the top cover guy, while sophomore Jordan Smith is a great athlete who started half of last season. Senior Mark Staines and junior Kieran McDonald are rangy long-stick midfielders with slick sticks. Freshman Ryan Kilpatrick will push for time. Goalie Steven Rastivo has firmly established himself as the starter.

McComas, a starter since he arrived on campus, believes the defense will benefit from going head-to-head against its own star-studded attack every day in practice.

"Those guys attack everyone," he said.

Will it all equate to postseason success? Coaches and players point to increased effort in the weight room, more competitive practices and a new one-game-at-a-time approach.

"It's a mentality to expect to win, and it takes hard work and energy," Breschi said. "I like where our heads are at, but we have a long way to go."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Tar Heels' team page.

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