VILLANOVA, Pa. — As the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team made its way through the fall and much of the preseason, its top returning scorer was nowhere to be found.
Junior attacker Abbey Friend was sidelined with knee tendinitis, undergoing a platelet-rich plasma injection last fall and finally rejoining practice a few weeks before the season started.
But she wasn’t quite the same player – at least not in February and March.
“I didn’t really have the fall to give me some background confidence,” Friend said. “Just working through the season, pushing through that, doing what I can to help my team in the beginning of the season and now just being able to do more of what I do.”
What she does is provide plenty of scoring for the third-seeded Tar Heels (17-3), who will play top-seeded Maryland (22-0) in Sunday night’s national championship game at Villanova Stadium.
Friend had 32 goals and eight assists during the last nine games and had three goals in Friday’s 11-4 semifinal rout of Northwestern. In her first 11 games this season, Friend had 15 goals and seven assists.
Friend’s resurgence, which includes 12 goals on 16 shots in three NCAA tournament games, is a major part of why the Tar Heels are in the championship game for the second time in program history and the first time since 2009.
“She’s a scorer, and scorers like to feel quick, like to feel good,” Tar Heels coach Jenny Levy said. “They don’t like when they can’t get up and down the field. Then we’re asking her to ride and she’s out of shape. A whole bunch of different elements impacted Abbey.
“We said ‘Look, be patient. We’re not disappointed, just keep plugging away, you’re going to be great.’ As she got healthier and stronger and fitter, her play has reflected that.”
The turnaround started around the time North Carolina played Maryland on April 6. The Tar Heels lost 14-13, but Friend scored three times. When they met later that month in the ACC title game, Friend had four goals.
During the past two months, the Tar Heels’ relatively youthful lineup has grown more comfortable with Friend’s efficiency and stickwork. She already had a rapport with senior midfielder Kara Cannizzaro, North Carolina’s leading scorer, providing North Carolina with a potent one-two punch.
“We know what to expect from each other, so that allows her to be in the open,” Cannizzaro said. “A lot of the girls are now learning that and they’re getting really comfortable putting balls in that you might not put into another player, but you can put them into Abbey because you know she’s going to finish.”
Now, Friend and her teammates hope to net the Tar Heels’ first national title.
“We’re always so close,” said Friend, who is three goals away from her second-straight 50-goal season. “Two years ago, my freshman year, when we were in the final four we lost by one. Last year in the elite eight to Syracuse we lost by one. This year, coming in we really made a statement against Northwestern and I’m hoping we can really roll that confidence over.”