A series of heralded North Carolina lacrosse teams stitched together stellar regular seasons, only to fade in the glare of the postseason over the last two decades.
It took a relatively overlooked bunch playing a year after absorbing considerable graduation hits to bring the proud program back to the last weekend of the season.
The unseeded Tar Heels earned a 13-9 victory over third-seeded Notre Dame on Sunday at Ohio Stadium, ending an absence from Memorial Day weekend that stretched back to 1993.
“This was not just a win for this team,” defensive midfielder Jake Matthai said. “It was a win for the alumni. It was a win for those who believed in us, because we know there’s plenty of people out there who don’t. But I would like to thank the people who continued to stick with us and with this team. I also believe there’s a lot in store for us in the future.”
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That could come as soon as Saturday, when the Tar Heels (10-6) meet seventh-seeded Loyola (16-3). The Greyhounds defeated Towson 10-8 in Sunday’s other quarterfinal.
The Tar Heels got there thanks to four second-half goals from senior Steve Pontrello, sophomore Chris Cloutier’s three-goal, three-assist day and a 14-save performance by goalie Brian Balkam.
Junior Stephen Kelly was dominant on faceoffs, winning 17 of 25 to provide the Tar Heels with a considerable faceoff advantage. He was especially sharp in the second half as North Carolina stretched a 6-2 lead at the break to 13-4 early in the fourth quarter.
“He dominated and allowed us to go on that run,” coach Joe Breschi said.
Mikey Wynne scored four goals for Notre Dame (11-4), which never established any continuity on offense. Midfielder Sergio Perkovic, one of the Irish’s offensive centerpieces, shot 0-for-14, and Balkam stifled his best scoring chance of the day in transition at the start of the second half.
Beyond that standout moment, the Tar Heels’ defense was technically sound when called upon. North Carolina never trailed, and the Irish didn’t stitch together consecutive goals before rattling off the final five to make things look less lopsided.
“We held them to three goals in three quarters, and I don’t think we’ve done that to a single team this year,” Matthai said. “That was our best game defensively. Now, it wasn’t our best fourth quarter, but as a whole defensively we were playing about as good as we ever have and we were communicating about as good as we ever have. We were all on the same page, and when we do that, good things happen.”
North Carolina, which won four national titles between 1981 and 1991, lost in its last seven quarterfinal appearances entering Sunday. Four of those came under Breschi, including a meltdown after a dominant first quarter against Denver in 2013 and last year’s flat showing against Maryland despite a lineup filled with senior stars.
This had the makings of a rebuilding year, and the Tar Heels absorbed some questionable losses against Hofstra and Massachusetts early in the year while a largely new set of offensive contributors settled into roles.
“The program, I don’t know if you want to call it stagnant, but was stuck in the quarterfinals for years,” Breschi said. “For this particular group, it makes it so special. Nobody’s looking at us, we were low in the rankings, we were picked last in the ACC. We just kept plugging away and plugging away.”
So now North Carolina’s final four drought is over. These Tar Heels, though, still have big plans after finally retiring one of the sport’s long-running narratives.
“I think we have nothing to lose,” Pontrello said. “I think we’ll play with great emotion and great energy. Even though it is our first time (in years), we’ll compete like hell.”