CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina's field hockey team has grown accustomed to reaching their version of the Final Four, making this weekend's trip to Louisville, Ky., almost routine.
Sunday's win against Michigan sent the top-seeded Tar Heels (22-1) to its fourth Final Four in the last five years, setting up today's 2 p.m. match against fourth-seeded Connecticut (19-2).
The feeling of going to the Final Four never gets old for head coach Karen Shelton, who has won six national titles with the Tar Heels. Yet even in UNC's 16th trip to the national semifinals, there are no special rituals or traditions for the team.
"We'll try to keep everything consistent like we have all year," Shelton said. "We have routines, and we will stick to those routines. What we try and get them to do is not worry about the outcome, worry about the process. We want to be able to fall back on our habits. If you establish great habits, success is a byproduct of that."
Those habits of two-touch passing, unselfish ball movement and an emphasis on defense have helped place the Tar Heels in Louisville with UConn, Maryland and Old Dominion. Shelton's philosophy has been engrained in the minds of the four fifth-year seniors on the team who have experienced the elation of two national title victories as well as the agony of a championship game loss.
Katelyn Falgowski, Meghan Dawson, Elizabeth Stephens and Teryn Brill were on the 2007 and 2009 title-winning teams and on last season's runner-up squad that fell 3-2 in overtime to Maryland.
"The Final Four is not new to them," Shelton said. "We do have a humble group, and I don't think they're overconfident. They know they have to play well, and they're hungry after losing last year."
But with all the tournament experience on a team that averages more goals per game than any other team left standing, the Tar Heels are relying on an international freshman goalkeeper to help secure a seventh national title for the program.
Sassi Ammer admitted she hasn't slept well this week, and the 18-year old German readily agrees she's nervous about starting in goal today despite having the best goals-against average in the nation (.63 goals allowed per game).
"I really trust my defense," said Ammer.
Shelton said her young goalkeeper has grown into the position.
"Obviously, coming in as an international player to a team that as solid as ours, I think it took her a while to adjust but she's adjusted real well," Shelton said. "She's a gamer, that's one thing I've learned about her."
As for Ammer, her first NCAA tournament experience has been a whirlwind. But the remaining opposition features at least one familiar face for her.
"I'm pretty inexperienced," she said. "I've played against a girl at Maryland who's German (freshman Steffi Schneid), but that's about all."