During her four years at North Carolina, goalkeeper Megan Ward has seen her share of highs and lows.
On Friday, she experienced one of the low points, getting pulled just eight minutes into a national semifinal after allowing goals on all five shots she saw against Penn State. Her teammates bailed her out, though, rallying past the Nittany Lions to set up a rematch with top-seeded Maryland in the championship.
Given another chance, Ward ended her college career on top.
The senior from Annapolis, Md., was on top of her game on Sunday, stopping 14 of 21 shots as the third-seeded Tar Heels took home their second national championship with a 13-7 win over the top-seeded Terrapins.
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“Being in the championship game and winning it my senior year, I am very grateful,” Ward said, adding, “it was a team effort.”
As a freshman in 2013, Ward started in goal as North Carolina downed Maryland in triple overtime to take home the program’s first title. Last season, sophomore Caylee Waters seized the starting goalie job, but UNC fell just short in the title, losing 9-8 to the Terrapins.
Ward and Waters split goaltending duties this season, with neither able to gain a clear advantage . Waters was the hero in the semifinal, stopping eight of 14 shots during the comeback win over the Nittany Lions, but Ward got her redemption on the biggest stage possible.
“I was a little bit surprised (to get the start),” Ward admitted, “but it was great ... the defense played great in front of me, and that definitely helped me today.”
“We knew that when Meg doesn’t play well, in the next game she comes back to play really well,” UNC coach Jenny Levy said.
The loss was the first for Maryland in its last 27 games, dating back to last season. The Terrapins (22-1), who won a Feb. 27 matchup between the teams 8-7, lost for just the fourth time in the last four seasons – three of which came at the hands of the Tar Heels.
Ward and six others who were on the roster in 2013 got a chance to celebrate again as seniors, but their coach wasn’t ready to draw parallels from one year to another.
“Every year the team is different,” Levy said. “Once everybody buys in, it doesn’t really matter what they are like as long as they want the same thing.”
Revenge was clearly on the minds of the Tar Heels (20-2), who gave up the first score of the game two minutes in but then responded with six straight against a stunned Maryland squad. By halftime it was just a 6-4 lead, however, and the momentum inside Talen Energy Stadium had clearly shifted.
The five-goal lead had gotten all the way down to one with 20 minutes remaining before North Carolina got some much-needed breathing room.
Goals by Carly Reed and Aly Messinger in a 15-second span quickly pushed the advantage back to three, beginning a run of five straight goals for the Tar Heels that made it 12-6 with 10:23 remaining and the outcome all but decided.
Messinger, who scored three goals in the 2013 championship win, was the offensive catalyst all game long for the Tar Heels, finishing with two goals and four assists to lead her team in points on the afternoon.
“We had 100 percent confidence every single play,” she said. “There was no question as to what was going to happen, and that was our attitude throughout the game.”
Molly Hendrick, a junior attack and one of two Tewaaraton Award nominees on the squad, paced the Tar Heels with three goals. Four others had two scores, including Messinger, senior Sammy Jo Tracy, junior Carly Reed and sophomore Ela Hazar.
Those who want a Maryland-North Carolina rematch won’t have to wait too long – the men’s championship final on Monday pits the Terrapins against the Tar Heels yet again.