Not long after Joe Breschi became head coach of the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team seven years ago, some of his goals were small – such as the one to just win a single conference game. It had been four years then since the Tar Heels had done that.
“And now,” Breschi said during an interview earlier this week, “the goal is the Final Four and championship weekend. Which has established big pride.
“And the fact that when I arrived we were talking about winning an ACC game and now we’re talking about championships is how far the program has come.”
UNC on Sunday against Colgate will begin play in the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 national seed – the program’s highest since 1993. Back then, more than 20 years ago, UNC wasn’t too far removed from the national championship it won in 1991. The program was among the nation’s most successful.
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It became stagnant, though, with the passage of time. A head coaching transition in 2001 didn’t resuscitate UNC, and when Breschi – a UNC alum who graduated in 1990 among the most decorated players in school history – arrived before the 2009 season, the Tar Heels had lost 13 consecutive ACC games dating to 2004.
“And that’s not good,” he said. “So my goal was to reestablish pride in the program.”
That was the larger goal, at least, and one Breschi has achieved thanks in no small part to a senior class whose legacy could be largely shaped by what transpires during the NCAA tournament. Breschi’s team has four senior captains – Jake Bailey, Jimmy Bitter, Ryan Kilpatrick and Joey Sankey – and five more seniors play regularly.
When they arrived at UNC in 2011, Breschi, an assistant coach on the Tar Heels’ 1991 national championship team, was just starting to rebuild the program. Unable to sell prospects on the allure of joining recent success, he sold a vision of what could be – and what he believed would be.
Bitter, whose older brother played at UNC, said he saw signs then of the program “just getting back to where it used to be.”
He was among the first in his class to commit to UNC. Other heralded prospects followed, and soon Breschi had put together one of the strongest classes in the country – a class that has been the Tar Heels’ foundation the past four seasons.
Breschi said he believed this kind of progression was possible years ago. He saw it, he said, from the time his seniors were freshmen. But it still had to happen. And the transition wasn’t always easy.
The Tar Heels won the ACC in 2013 but took a step backward and weren’t a national seed in the NCAA tournament a season ago. Meanwhile, they watched their fiercest rival, Duke, win consecutive national championships.
“It’s almost like a rebuilding or a rebirth of a program that’s had great tradition, but trying to get it back on track where we’re competitive in recruiting nationally and on the field nationally,” Breschi said. “And that’s been a process. And all of us would want it overnight, but unfortunately it just doesn’t come that easy.”
On the field, UNC’s seniors have led one of the best offenses in the nation – a team that would make men’s basketball coach Roy Williams proud of how fast it likes to play. The Tar Heels average 14.53 goals per game, second in the country. Off the field, Bitter and his classmates might be even closer. They all live, he said, in a group of houses not far from campus.
“It’s definitely been a special year,” said Bitter, an attackman from Vermont. “Being a senior, going through four years, you see the change each year. And this year we have a great senior group of leaders from the top down, and all of us get along real well and there’s no real competition between any of us.
“(We’re) just good friends that love to play the game.”
In seeking to rekindle its past glory, UNC also will attempt to reverse its recent postseason futility. The Tar Heels have advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament just once in the past four seasons. They haven’t made it out of the quarterfinals – the second round, in effect, after the field is pared from 16 teams to eight – since 1993.
This, though, is probably UNC’s strongest team since then. It’s the best, at least, of Breschi’s tenure – and it’s the kind of team he envisioned four years ago.
“When your seniors are the first ones on the field and the last ones to leave, you’re in a good spot,” Breschi said. “Because all the other kids are following their lead, and how they handle adversity, how they handle winning. And I think that’s been a huge part of our success.”
14.53 UNC’s goals per game, second in nation.
4.73 Average winning margin, fourth in country.
22 Goals with one-man advantage.
44 Goals by leading scorer Luke Goldstock.