North Carolina junior Carly Reed’s path to a regular role on a team contending for a national championship was anything but smooth.
In some ways, though, it’s made the midfielder’s emergence in recent weeks something to appreciate even more.
“Learning over my sophomore year that I had to stay focused, you never know any day they might need you and you have to work your hardest every single day,” Reed said. “Now that we’re here on the big stage, I know I’ve put in the work so I know I deserve to be out there.”
There are no bigger stages in women’s lacrosse than the NCAA tournament final, which the third-seeded Tar Heels (19-2) will play in for the third time in four seasons. All three of those trips have culminated with meetings with Maryland (22-0), which enters Sunday’s title game as the top seed and winners of 26 in a row dating back to last year’s tournament.
Reed enjoyed the best game of her season in Friday’s 12-11 semifinal defeat of Penn State, matching a career-high with five goals. She has 27 on the season, the fifth-most on the team despite not entering the Tar Heels’ starting lineup until April 23.
With Penn State’s defensive attention centered on the likes of Molly Hendrick, Marie McCool and Aly Messinger, Reed scored four goals in the first half against the Nittany Lions.
“I just kept going. I was like ‘OK, I’m right in front of the goal, I might as well shoot,’” Reed said. “We have seven threats out there every day and everyone’s looking at Aly and Marie because they’re going to beat their girl one-on-one, so I know my girl is going to have to slide and I just have to do my job and finish.”
Reed came to Chapel Hill as a scorer, and a prolific one at that. She completed her career at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes High School in the Washington suburbs with 475 goals, the second-most in girls high school lacrosse history. She found a role out of necessity as a freshman, scoring 35 goals as a reserve as the Tar Heels dealt with a rash of ACL tears.
But last year, she played more sparingly, appearing in half of North Carolina’s games and finishing with eight goals and two assists.
“Every player has moments where they are forced to decide ‘Am I going to frigging put my cleats in and dig in and be serious and committed about becoming the player I have the potential to be, or am I going to just make excuses because I’m not getting what I want on game day?’” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “The kids who really cross those thresholds and really dig in and work become really valuable because that struggle is the best teacher.”
It proved to be the case for Reed, who played primarily at the offensive end in high school but was converted into a midfielder this year. That proved crucial when Sydney Holman was lost for the season to injury in mid-March.
It would be another month before Reed cracked the starting lineup, after which she had four goals and an assist in the ACC title game against Syracuse before Friday’s stellar showing.
“She’s the kid who stays late at practice and shoots on the goalies,” Levy said. “She’s always trying to find somebody to hang around for an extra 30 minutes to work on shooting and finishing. When we transitioned her into a midfield player, she was like ‘What do you mean I’m not on offense?’ (We said) ‘But your speed is so great.’ We really had to convince her that she could be a great middie.”
Reed credits Holman’s support for helping her navigate the final half of the season. But the success is also earned, and it’s helped to put the Tar Heels within a victory of their second national title.
“It feels awesome, but I’m not going to be satisfied with my success until we win,” Reed said. “I’ve worked so hard this year that (come) Sunday, I’m not going to be happy with my hard work until we get the win and the time runs out.”
NCAA women’s lacrosse championship
UNC vs. Maryland
When: Noon Sunday
TV: ESPNU, ESPN3