photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications
One of the hardest things in sports is finishing second. To be on the cusp of virtual immortality, but the season ending up as a lost gem in the treasure chest of history.
This has been the case for North Carolina field hockey in recent years. After eight straight Final Fours — losing in the semifinal in 2013 and the title game the past two seasons — the Tar Heels come into the 2017 campaign looking to take home its first national title since 2009.
Experienced leadership has always been a strength of UNC, but it will be a bit different this season.
Carolina lost five starters from a year ago, including three All-Americans — Julia Young (first team), Emma Bozek (second team), and Lauren Moyer (third team) — and two key cogs in defender Kristy Bernatchez and goalie Shannon Johnson.
UNC will also have to adjust to playing all of their home games at Jack Katz stadium, the home of the Duke Blue Devils.
“It is what it is, and it’s not about what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it,” coach Karen Shelton said.
Even with all of this on tap, the Tar Heels begin the season ranked No. 1 in the preseason field hockey coaches' poll.
“We’re young, and we’re rebuilding so I think that was obviously a compliment to the program and the history of our success, but I don't think it’s an actual reflection of where we are right now,” Shelton said. “But in saying that, I think we’ve got a lot of potential and a lot of room for growth."
Progression will be key for the Tar Heels, as 17 of the team's 24 players are sophomores or freshmen.
The lone senior on the team, Gab Major, led North Carolina in scoring in her sophomore campaign in 2015, and may be tasked with taking on a big scoring load again this year.
“It’s tough being the only senior, but we’ll be fine. We have a really strong junior class as well,” Major said.
That junior group is led by preseason All-ACC selections Ashley Hoffman and Eva Van’t Hoog. Both Hoffman and Van’t Hoog have started every game of their college career thus far, and will look to fill the void left by the seniors.
In addition to being younger, the Tar Heels also have a smaller unit this year. Shelton believes this will be beneficial for the team, especially with all of the bus rides to Durham for games and practice.
“We went from 31 players last year to 24, so it’s a more intimate team,” Shelton said. “I think that the cohesiveness and the unity is going to be better. The fact that we’re gonna be on the bus a little bit more will create some bonding time and the ability to get to know each other."
Adversity is an understatement for the Tar Heels this season, but the team has a mindset for it. They will attempt to start their season off on the right foot this Saturday as they travel to take on Michigan in the ACC-Big 10 challenge at 11:30 a.m.