April 4, 2012

North Carolina's Kids Are All Right, Veterans Buying In To New Look

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

North Carolina's starting midfield on Sunday against Johns Hopkins featured sophomore Ryan Creighton (above), sophomore Duncan Hutchins and freshman Canadian Chad Tutton. Freshmen Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey have shined on attack with junior team captain Marcus Holman as the Tar Heels have decided to rely on their youth.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

One month into a season he felt was dragging under the weight of high expectations with a star-powered roster, North Carolina men's lacrosse coach Joe Breschi knew it was time to address the issues. It was time to reexamine roles and rearrange the depth chart, time to promote youth at the expense of the older, time to secure a team identity.

"Everybody was trying to make the play to take pressure off of others, but the pressure kept mounting," Breschi said.

Things started to coalesce for the No. 9 Tar Heels, oddly enough, during the fourth quarter of a 13-11 loss to Duke on March 16, the day Carolina lost its third game in four outings and fell to 5-3. With dynamic newcomers such as freshmen attackmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter leading a furious pace in the fourth quarter, Carolina pounded Duke with 17 shots that produced five goals.

And by the time the Tar Heels faced Dartmouth five days later, they had taken a crash course in team chemistry. Breschi had met individually with each player to discuss and implement personnel changes. The players had met amongst themselves more than once over the same matters.

The upshot was Carolina would lean on its younger and most explosive players to make the offense fast, loose and relentless. The Tar Heels would use the tremendous quickness of dodgers such as Bitter and Sankey and young midfielders like freshman Chad Tutton and sophomore Ryan Creighton to set a high-shooting pace and maintain constant pressure on the cage.

Even though such a shift would come at the expense of playing time for veterans such as junior midfielder Davey Emala and graduate student Jake McBride – who had transferred to Carolina as perceived go-to guys – so be it.

"We can't have 46 starters or 46 All-Americans. Not everybody is going to score four points a game," said junior attackman Marcus Holman, who moved from his midfield spot as part of the changes.

"Just because you're not scoring doesn't mean you're not making an impact. Yeah, we hit our rough patches early in the season. But a championship season – and that's what we hope this ends up being – is not all fairies, roses and rainbows. We know we've got to keep playing hungry and with an edge."

The product of Carolina's reassessment was spectacularly evident on Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., where the Tar Heels fired the most eyebrow-raising shot of the spring by beating top-ranked, undefeated Johns Hopkins. But it was the way the Tar Heels brought youth and speed – and elite faceoff specialist R.G. Keenan – to bear in a 13-9 victory that grabbed attention.

The only reason this game was sort of close was Hopkins goalie Pierce Bassett, who was under assault for most of the game dominated by Keenan and an offense that killed Hopkins from behind the net and unloaded 49 shots on the exhausted Blue Jays. The highlight was a dizzying, 23-shot second quarter that yielded four goals and an 8-4 halftime lead the Tar Heels would never relinquish.

And the reason Carolina (8-3) won its third straight and made its case as a potential, national championship contender was that the kids are quite all right in Chapel Hill and the veterans are quite OK with it.

""We just felt we could be more effective with these young attackmen breaking down a close defense. That's rare in a time when everybody is attacking [defensive midfielders] short sticks. It just puts so much pressure on a defense," Breschi said.

"Everybody can score in this offense, but we just told them we've got to do it this way [with the young players at the forefront]. Jack and Davey came here to compete and win. They understand these young guys are pretty darned good, and they're fearless. Once we figured out who we were and figured out we can have fun with this game and play loose and fast, it started to get more exciting."

With back-to-back wins over Maryland and Hopkins and visiting, no. 1 Virginia looming on Saturday, the Tar Heels are all in on the Future Is Now movement.

The future is Bitter and Sankey, the hard-dodging, lightning-quick duo that is complemented and mentored by Holman, a co-captain. The future is Tutton and Creighton and Duncan Hutchins on the first midfield.

The future includes proven stars Emala and McBride stepping back in supporting roles. Emala, formerly the best player as a Georgetown attackman, is an extra-man threat that anchors the second midfield with McBride, a one-year Tar Heel who is one of the better middies ever to play at Princeton. The future includes proven scoring commodities such as senior Thomas Wood and sophomore Pat Foster coming off the bench.

And the future includes sophomore attackman Nicky Galasso, the game's top freshman in 2011 who continues his comeback from offseason foot surgery in a limited capacity. By the time Galasso is fully healthy, there is no guaranteed amount of playing time awaiting him, nor are the Tar Heels worried about wounding his pride.

That's the point with this suddenly very dangerous Carolina team. As the players gather themselves for a stretch run they hope leads to the school's first NCAA tournament final four since 1993, no one is asking, "What about me and my points and my touches?"

We'll see how the Tar Heels handle Virginia, how they navigate the ACC tournament later this month in Charlottesville, how they cope with another burst of success. We'll see how they manage those expectations in May, under the heaviest stress.

Holman, who as the team leader in assists (23) and points (39) has been the absolute glue of the operation, said the Tar Heels aren't hiding from past failures, such as last year's 10-6 disappointment. He knows Carolina has teased its fans repeatedly. But Holman senses a reduction in ego and a corresponding spike in maturity that could take this crew places the lacrosse world doubts it can travel.

"It's not about what people have to say from outside the locker room, calling us the Miami Heat of college lacrosse and other jibber jab," Holman said. "It's about us working our way on the mission. You can't just wait until May to fire up the engines."

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