Sports

UNC women’s lacrosse has won 4 straight ACC titles. Can it win a third NCAA championship?

North Carolina women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Levy smiles at North Carolina men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi during a press conference together where both coaches talked about winning dual NCAA National Championships on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Levy smiles at North Carolina men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi during a press conference together where both coaches talked about winning dual NCAA National Championships on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

When Jenny Levy was hired in 1994 to coach North Carolina’s first women’s lacrosse team, the budget was small and the sport was not very popular in the state.

Levy said during the first decade of her tenure she was only able to bring in five out-of-state recruits. So she had to sometimes get players from UNC’s soccer team to fill its roster.

Now, 25 years later, Levy no longer has that issue. While the sport has grown, so has her program. Levy’s teams have won two national championships (2013 and 2016), been to 10 Final Fours and won five ACC tournament titles, including the last four.

After winning the ACC tournament two weeks ago, No. 2 North Carolina (15-3) enters the NCAA tournament on Sunday as the No. 3 overall seed. The Tar Heels will host the winner of Friday’s Johns Hopkins and Florida game.

“It’s funny to think about the earlier days and what practice was like, and what recruiting was like,” Levy said. “It’s just so different now, it’s even hard to compare. But we’ve worked hard for 25 years to put the program on the map and started from scratch here.”

Women’s lacrosse has expanded immensely in the past decade. There are currently 116 Division I schools with women’s lacrosse teams, 30 more than there were in 2009. Three more are expected to join within the next three years.

UNC, which began playing in 1996, has been a mainstay in the NCAA tournament since forming its program.

Of the 23 years the UNC’s women’s lacrosse program has been eligible to play in the postseason, it has missed the NCAA tournament only three times. Its two NCAA titles are tied for fifth-most in the country.

Last season, the Tar Heels lost in the NCAA tournament Final Four to James Madison, the eventual champion. UNC has used that loss as motivation this season. Among its 15 wins in 2019, UNC has beaten No. 3 Boston College, No. 4 Syracuse, No. 5 Northwestern, No. 6 Virginia and No. 9 James Madison.

“I think every year this program is hungry,” Levy said. “Our guys come in with the expectation to compete for an ACC and national title every year. Those are our standards and we build our standards and our culture around that.”

The Tar Heels are led by attackers sophomore Jamie Ortega and junior Katie Hoeg, who are 10th and 13th respectively in the country in points scored this season. Hoeg has 92 points this season, which is second on the team.

Ortega has a team-high 97 points, a school record for most points scored in a single season. She also has 71 goals, one goal shy of the single-season school record.

Ortega credits the team’s chemistry for why UNC has been successful this season.

“Everyone just has this belief in each other that they trust each other and believe that anyone can do anything on the field,” Ortega said. “We did believe in each other last year, but the belief this year has grown so much, and it’s just so strong.”

The Tar Heels have a first-round bye in the 26-team tournament, so they need to win three games to make it to the championship game.

But Levy the coach said her team won’t look that far ahead.

“Our focus overall is to stay humble, stay hungry and hardworking and not worry about anything beyond what Sunday is going to bring for us,” she said.

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.

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