Nearly 24 hours after the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team became perhaps the most improbable national champion in NCAA tournament history, Tar Heels coach Joe Breschi knew some things but was still learning others.
This was all new to him: the championship itself and the aftermath. How long was he supposed to bask in the moment? How long could he celebrate this? What now, after reaching the zenith of his profession, and sport?
Breschi hadn’t been here before, he acknowledged on Tuesday during a press conference UNC had quickly assembled after both its men’s and women’s lacrosse teams won national championships. Then, smiling, Breschi turned to his left, toward Jenny Levy, the coach of the UNC women’s team.
“I’m going to ask her how to handle this,” Breschi said.
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Levy could tell him a few things – and did, on Tuesday – about climbing one championship mountain and navigating toward the next peak. The UNC women on Friday were playing in a final four for the sixth time in eight seasons.
The Tar Heels won the women’s lacrosse championship in 2013 and did it again Sunday with a 13-7 victory against Maryland in Chester, Pa. And then the women hung around an extra day in Philadelphia to cheer on the UNC men, who also defeated Maryland, in a dramatic 14-13 overtime victory on Monday.
Levy’s program had been here before and had made final-four trips something of an expected annual tradition. Before this past weekend, meanwhile, Breschi had been trying to rekindle the UNC men’s lacrosse glory days of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
And now here they are: a pair of national champions, both programs atop the college lacrosse world. Not since Princeton in 1994 had one school won both the men’s and women’s national lacrosse championships. More than 20 years later, both trophies made their way back to one campus.
“It’s the fastest-growing sport in the country, yet it’s still dominant in the mid-Atlantic,” Levy said. “And to pull both trophies down to North Carolina I think is very significant. It obviously will help our recruiting, but I also think in-state and beyond it helps with the growth of the sport.”
Levy remembered well what happened in 2013, when the UNC women won their first national championship. That same season, the men’s lacrosse championship also came back to the state, but to Duke.
“So it’s even better to bring it back to the state and have both of them at the University of North Carolina,” Levy said. “So I think it’s significant, I think the sport is growing and for us to do what we did this weekend I think is great for the sport, it’s great for this university, it’s great for our programs.”
Different roads, same result
This past weekend was, as Breschi described it, a “perfect storm” for the two UNC teams, which traveled vastly different journeys to reach the same destination and experience the same, indescribably satisfying result. The women, at least, were expected to make a championship run.
Levy’s program (20-2), after all, has established itself as a perennial contender. It won the national championship in 2013 and last season again reached the title game, where it lost 9-8 against Maryland. Returning to that same point, and avenging that loss, had been UNC’s goal all season.
The Tar Heel men (12-6), meanwhile, entered the season with less grand expectations. Or rather, with hardly any expectations at all. Months ago, this looked like it might be one of Breschi’s least formidable teams. The UNC men hadn’t reached the final four since 1993, and that drought didn’t appear likely to end.
Until, that is, the Tar Heels squeezed into the NCAA tournament and began winning, pulling one upset after the next.
Breschi’s team, whose postseason hopes were in doubt after a 3-3 start and a humbling home loss against Massachusetts in mid-March, entered the NCAA tournament unseeded. The Tar Heels weren’t supposed to make it past their first game, against Marquette, or their second, against Notre Dame.
But those two victories put UNC into the national semifinals for the first time in more than 20 years. Then came a relatively drama-free 18-13 victory against Loyola University Maryland, followed by what happened on Monday, when Chris Cloutier’s overtime goal against Maryland gave the Tar Heels a most improbable championship.
All the while, Levy and her women’s team sat in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field and cheered on the men. They brought their own national championship trophy with them. The UNC men’s 1991 national championship lacrosse team, which was in Philadelphia to be recognized on the 25th anniversary of its title, was also there.
“We had to wait so long,” Breschi said, “why not on the 25-year anniversary of the ’91 team?”
A UNC alum, Breschi was a young assistant coach on that 1991 team. The connections between the past and present don’t end there. Levy’s husband, Dan, was one of the best players on that Tar Heel team.
Levy didn’t ride back with her team from Philadelphia. She drove home with Dan and said on Tuesday, with a laugh, that she did the driving because it had been a long weekend of celebrating for Dan and everyone else associated with the UNC men’s lacrosse program.
Then again, it had been a long weekend of celebrating for both the men and the women, and for UNC lacrosse in general. The teams stayed in the same hotel. Players passed each other in the halls, on the way to meetings.
Before the women played in their championship game on Sunday, Breschi and his players formed a human tunnel and cheered Levy and her players while they made their way to their bus.
“That was one of my favorite moments of the weekend,” Levy said, turning toward Breschi. “Besides when you guys won.”
Two teams, two underdogs
Both teams were the underdogs in their respective championships. The Maryland men hadn’t won a national championship in more than four decades but appeared poised to do so when they had a one-man advantage early in overtime. The Maryland women, meanwhile, had been undefeated before Sunday.
It was “magical,” Breschi said, that both UNC teams beat the same school, which had been a former ACC rival. And indeed, Levy said with a smile, “It was really nice to beat the Terps twice.”
They took more satisfaction in simply sharing the same accomplishment. For years, Breschi and his teams had been inspired by the success of the UNC women’s teams.
The men wondered when their chance might come. The women reminded them of what was possible, sometimes vocally.
“It’s not jabbing each other in a bad way, but just kind of like brotherly-sisterly competition and just kind of (like), ‘Look, hey, you guys better get one up there,’” said Patrick Kelly, the UNC attackman who scored the goal that forced overtime on Monday. “Kind of chirping us. And it’s great.
“(The women’s team) motivated us and I think we’ve pushed each other this year a little bit.”
That was so until the end, when the women won their final game of the season on Sunday and when the men did the same one day later. Two teams, two days, two national championships.
Breschi still appeared to be processing it all on Tuesday. For Levy the feeling was familiar but no less sweet.
The men’s national championship trophy sat on a table in the team’s offices on Tuesday. Levy, meanwhile, said she had “no idea” where her team’s trophy was. The players had taken it back to their apartments or houses and eventually it would make its way back to campus.
“We have one final team meeting today,” Levy said, “just to see everybody and take ring sizes.”