The conditions were damp and the field was slick as the No. 15 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team slugged it out with No. 5 Maryland Terrapins during a hotly contested rivalry game in 2012.
It was no place for an inexperienced freshman.
Yet something possessed coach Joe Breschi to play Joey Sankey. Weighing 155 pounds and standing 5-foot-5, the physically unimposing freshman was beaten and battered, but he found a way to shine on an otherwise gloomy day.
“That was kind of his intro to Division I lacrosse,” Breschi said. “He goes out there and he scrapes and claws and gets absolutely hammered, but has a nose for the cage.”
Leading the Tar Heels to an upset win at home, Sankey had a hat trick and the breakout game of his career. Getting laid out and knocked to the ground every time he got close to the cage, Sankey showed tenacity by scoring all three of his goals while being hit.
“That was definitely one of the top-five most fun games I’ve played in,” Sankey said. “I just remember when I got the game ball coach Breschi said something about how all my goals I was on the ground for.”
Breschi simply said, “He earned it.”
Since that day, Sankey hasn’t grown physically. He’s still 5-foot-5. But he didn’t let it stop him then, and he doesn’t let it stop him now.
Sankey has played sports all his life. As the youngest boy in his family, he fought to keep up with his older brothers, and was raised to never let excuses explain a lack of effort.
“No matter what sport it was,” Stankey said, “if I ever didn’t give it my all or didn’t give it 100 percent, I would hear it the entire car ride home, the entire night until I went to bed.”
Sankey studied players like Wes Welker from football and Mikey Powell from lacrosse, and tried to emulate the professionals’ movements and adapt them to his game.
Stankey learned how to use his size to his advantage, using speed and a low center of gravity to duck under defenders fighting for groundballs and squeeze his body in tight spaces around the crease of the cage to make improbable goals.
So when Breschi was scouting Sankey in high school at Penn Charter to see if he would make a good future Tar Heel, it was a no brainer.
“There was no thinking twice,” Breschi confidently claimed. “I knew right away I wanted to recruit him. He was on our list in a hurry.”
A friendly competition
Sankey’s not shy about admitting that he had second thoughts the fall of his freshman year.
Not only was Sankey dealing with the adjustment to college level lacrosse, the Pennsylvanian was surrounded by talented and experienced players in Chapel Hill.
From Marcus Holman to Nicky Galasso, everywhere Sankey turned he saw another person he’d have a tough time beating out to get playing time.
“I kind of struggled a little bit,” Sankey said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t running through my head, me questioning myself about whether I could play at this level.”
But with players like Galasso and others limited due to injuries, Sankey worked his way up the depth chart.
“Who knows if I would have played for the next few years if those certain guys weren’t injured,” Sankey said.
There was only one person standing in Sankey’s way – Jimmy Bitter.
Bitter and Sankey both came to UNC the same year and both ranked in the top ten according to Inside Lacrosse’s rankings.
With injuries hurting the Tar Heels each received his fair share of chances to play and make a difference.
“You never knew freshman year how much time you were going to get,” Sankey admitted. “It was almost a competition to see who messed up first and the person who messed up first would get less playing time.”
“When we played we weren’t actually at our best,” Bitter added. “It hurt us… because the thing we’re best at is taking chances and playing with reckless abandon.”
But it didn’t take long for the two to become starters – and friends.
As the two entered their senior season both have become vocal leaders and captains of the team as they look to finally take the Tar Heels to championship weekend in their last effort to win an NCAA title at UNC.
Ending on top
Sankey would be lying if said it wasn’t in the back of his mind. The idea of being the best UNC attackman ever is a pretty cool thought to say the least.
And Sankey has a chance to be just that.
Last weekend Sankey passed Marcus Holman’s UNC record of 213 career points. .
“I definitely did not expect to be the leading scorer on the team any year,” Sankey humbly attested. “It’s just one of those things where I just feel like I lucked out and picked the right place, the right team.”
Obviously it wasn’t completely luck.
Stankey’s speed, tenacity, fast shot, off-ball movement, ability to distribute and insanely high lacrosse IQ did a lot to help his cause.
He may not have the size that many players rely on, but he doesn’t need it. He’s got more than enough skill to make up for it.