It had been a long time since Emma Bozek last scored a goal.
Bozek, a fifth-year senior midfielder on the North Carolina field hockey team (4-1, 1-0 ACC), had scored 27 career goals leading into this past weekend. But the last one she scored, before Saturday, was against Syracuse in the 2014 Final Four — one of her team-leading 16 that season.
The Tar Heels lost that game 3-2. Bozek wasn’t on the field a year later when UNC again lost to Syracuse 4-2 in the national championship game. Surgery for a sequestered lung kept her on the sidelines as a volunteer coach, where she could only watch as her team fell short again in its pursuit of a title.
“I knew as soon as I went into the hospital that I was coming back and playing,” Bozek said. “It was just a matter of when.”
When she was younger, Bozek struggled with respiratory issues and illness. As she picked up sports, those troubles gradually began to fade away, but in summer 2015, she was out with teammates and her sister when she began having trouble breathing. A trip to the emergency room revealed she had a sequestered lung, a congenital defect where part of the lung doesn’t receive blood flow and doesn’t work with the rest of the organ. An infection had formed and Bozek needed surgery.
She spent the rest of the summer in and out of the hospital, partially because of complications from a collapsed lung she suffered a few weeks after the surgery. Over the next year, she worked to regain her conditioning, working back to the elite level she had attained even with her condition.
Her first goal since that 2014 semifinal, a penalty stroke against No. 7 Wake Forest in a 4-1 win on Saturday, meant a little bit more than the others. She slapped the ball into the left corner of the goal and was mobbed by her teammates.
“She’s obviously very resilient, and you like that in any young woman to have the ability to go through some incredible hardship and to respond with determination and discipline and the gutsiness to fight her way back,” UNC coach Karen Shelton said. “I didn’t have any doubt that she’d make it back, just knowing her.”
Bozek also fired another shot on goal that resulted in a goal for teammate Catherine Hayden. Shelton said the game against Wake Forest was only a sign of more great things to come from Bozek.
“She’s been playing so well, and bless her heart, nobody works harder,” Shelton said. “She’s going to get field goals too as the season goes on.”
Bozek was one of four Tar Heels to score against Wake Forest. And so far this season, 10 different players have scored UNC’s 16 goals.
“That’s the way we’re going to be,” Shelton said. “We don’t have the one go-to scorer like we did last year with Nina (Notman, who scored 14 goals in 2015).
“I think this is going to be a team that piecemeals the games and the wins together.”
How much winning this team can do is the question. The Tar Heels have been in the Final Four every year since 2009, but only have one championship — a 3-2 win over Princeton in 2012.
This season, they’re in the mix again, ranked as the best team in the nation to open the season. Bozek was a freshman on that 2012 team, and now she’ll return for a final season – her first back from her illness.
She can only hope it ends like her first.