They’ve becoming something of an annual rite – these trips to the Final Four for the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team – but the frequency of the accomplishment hasn’t led to complacency, or boredom.
“Never gets old,” Sammy Jo Tracy, the junior attacker, said earlier this week. “Because you never know when you’re going to be back there.”
That’s true for some programs, perhaps. At UNC, though, this has become the standard and the expectation, and Final Four trips are nearly an annual certainty. The Tar Heels, who play against Penn State on Friday in a national semifinal, are in the Final Four for the sixth time in the past eight years.
UNC won the national championship in 2013 and reached the championship game again last year before ending the season with a bitter 9-8 defeat against Maryland. For a program and a group of players so accustomed to winning, a rare loss – especially on that stage – has been haunting.
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“We’re pretty upset about it,” Tracy said, speaking in the present tense, as if the memory of that national championship defeat still lingers. “... Especially to come up one short. And I think that just pushes us harder.”
Earlier this season, UNC (18-2) endured losses not unlike the one it suffered in that championship game. Back in February, the Tar Heels lost by a point against Florida and against Maryland, again.
Since then, the Tar Heels haven’t lost, instead they’ve especially thrived in close, tense games. They’ve won six games that have been decided by one point.
Some would say gritty, not pretty. But they’ve found wins in lots of different situations to come through with wins this season.
Coach Jenny Levy
Two of those victories came in the ACC tournament, where UNC defeated Duke and Syracuse, in overtime, on consecutive days to win the league championship. Those performances perhaps personified the team’s character, which coach Jenny Levy describes as “gritty.”
“Some would say gritty, not pretty,” Levy, in her 21st season at UNC, said earlier this week. “But they’ve found wins in lots of different situations to come through with wins this season.
“And I wouldn’t say anything has been easy for us.”
Levy’s seniors were part of a national championship team when they were freshmen. And everyone but the team’s first-year players this season experienced the run to the Final Four, and to the final game of the season, a year ago.
Penn State (14-6), UNC’s opponent in the national semifinals, meanwhile, is far less experienced with playing games on this kind of stage, with these kinds of stakes. The Nittany Lions are making their first Final Four appearance since 1999, though it’s likely to be something of a hometown favorite at Philadelphia’s Talen Energy Field.
Levy downplayed the advantage of her team’s experience. Still, for UNC there is a sense of having been there and done that – a sense of familiarity that could come in handy this weekend.
“For us it helps us this week with preparation, it helps us train, it helps us know where our focus needs to be,” Levy said. “I think it helps us – you’re still amped up and you’re still excited for the game but I think the experience of being there, it helps you know what to expect.”
The Tar Heels have expected to make it this far, after all. And they’ve done it, as usual, with an emphasis on fundamental defense – “not a gimmick,” Levy said – and an offense that sacrifices individual glory for the benefit of the team.
Five UNC players, including Tracy and Marie McCool, a sophomore midfielder, enter the Final Four with more than 50 points. That balance might have precluded individual accolades for some players, but it’s one of the primary reasons why the Tar Heels find themselves where they usually are this time of year.
As familiar as this is, though, McCool said it was “super exciting” to be headed back to a national semifinal. The UNC women will have company in Philadelphia, where the Tar Heels men’s team is also playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1993.
“They were not expected to make it to the Final Four and some people didn’t think they were going to make it into the tournament, in general,” McCool said. “So just to see the heart that they played with … it was awesome. And we’re really excited to hopefully make this a Carolina-dominant weekend.”