More often than not in most sports, a torn anterior cruciate ligament brings a season-ending sentence.
North Carolina midfielder Brittney Coppa is an exception.
The fifth-year senior needed only a month to get back on the field after her second ACL tear, and she scored a crucial goal in the second-seeded Tar Heels’ NCAA semifinal victory over Duke on Friday.
Next up for North Carolina (18-3) is Sunday night’s national title game against top-seeded Maryland (20-1) at PPL Park in the Philadelphia suburbs. And Coppa, missing an ACL at least until her scheduled surgery on Friday, plans to be on the field as well.
“In life, a can-do attitude is the most amazing thing you can do for yourself,” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “She’s always had a great attitude. She’s a tough kid. She’s a fighter and it doesn’t surprise me she’s handling this the way she is.”
Coppa was a critical part of North Carolina’s national title team in 2013, assisting on the championship-clinching goal against Maryland. But she tore her left ACL in a preseason exhibition the following season and took a redshirt.
She returned this spring, only to injure her left knee during warmups on April 11 before the Tar Heels’ regular-season home finale against Syracuse. She made a cameo appearance, then surprised doctors when she started running a few days after getting hurt.
But she was fitted for a brace, her knee gave out on back-to-back days in practice, imperiling her chances at an improbable return.
“I was feeling really down and real upset, but I went to see my surgeon and he said ‘Brittney, I want you to go back out and keep practicing. Just know what you can and can’t do. You need to know your knee isn’t going to last forever, but we want to get you through if we can and we want to get you into your playoffs,’” she recalled.
It turned out that one of the most challenging facets of her rapid comeback was convincing teammates that they could defend her in practice as aggressively as they would an opponent in a game.
“I’ll look at my teammates and say ‘If you see me go down and make a funny face, just keep on going. I will get myself off the field, I promise,’” Coppa said. “I think if I can be light-hearted and nonchalant about it, then they will be too. I need them to play on me as hard as they can because they’re going to make me better and more prepared.”
Playing lacrosse with a torn ACL is rare, but not unprecedented. Duke long stick midfielder Luke Duprey came back six weeks after suffering the injury last year to play in the final four. He was limited but also an inspirational figure for the Blue Devils, chasing down a loose ball in the fourth quarter of the national title game.
Coppa provided a similar moment Friday, scoring off a restart with 6.5 seconds left in the first half to bump the Tar Heels’ lead to 7-4 at the break. North Carolina went on to win 16-7.
“It really pumped us up as a team and brought us the fire we needed to start the second half,” junior attacker Aly Messinger said.
Coppa, who has 23 goals and two assists on the season, could do the same thing Sunday as the Tar Heels attempt to earn the national championship in program history. For Coppa, preparing to play in the final is a vastly better ending than the one she refused to accept after her injury.
“When I hurt my left knee, I refused to let that define my career,” Coppa said. “It’s kind of the same thing. It’s been a little bit more difficult not having an ACL, but it’s just another bump in the road.”
Who: No. 1 seed Maryland vs. No. 2 seed UNC
When: 8:30 p.m.
Where: Chester, Pa.
2 things UNC must do to win
Offensive balance: The Tar Heels had 10 players score in Friday’s 16-7 victory over Duke in the semifinals. That will be tougher to accomplish against Maryland, which ranks No. 5 nationally in scoring defense (7.24 goals per game) and let only four Syracuse players find the net in the semifinals.
Contain Cummings: Maryland junior Taylor Cummings is the defending Tewaaraton Award winner and has 60 goals and 35 assists this season. The midfielder can function as a dominant scorer or, if double-teamed, a slick feeder. She had three goals against North Carolina earlier this season.