North Carolina

UNC back in men’s lacrosse final four after two-decade absence

UNC's Jake Matthai plays during their overtime victory over Duke in April 2016.
UNC's Jake Matthai plays during their overtime victory over Duke in April 2016.

For the first time in 23 years, North Carolina is back in the NCAA men’s lacrosse final four though Joe Breschi, the Tar Heels’ longtime coach, admitted earlier this week that phrasing it that way sounded funny given the long drought that has come to an end.

“It’s hard to say ‘back to the final four’ when you haven’t been in two decades,” Breschi said.

It’s equally hard to believe, perhaps, that it’s been this long – and that this particular UNC team is the one that has finally broken through and rekindled memories of the program’s early-1990s heyday. UNC (10-6) has fielded more talented teams in recent seasons, teams that might have looked better on paper.

And yet it’s this one – mostly unheralded throughout the regular season, one absent of the kind of considerable star power that has been common in some recent years – that will play on Saturday in Philadelphia in a national semifinal against Loyola (Md.).

“It’s coaching,” Breschi said, laughing, when asked how this team accomplished what others haven’t.

Then he provided a more serious answer, and spoke of the leadership of his older players and the Tar Heels’ unity, and how the collective efforts of all accounted for the departures of a few. There’s something else, too: This season, nobody expected UNC to be here.

The Tar Heels in some recent seasons carried a burden of expectations that didn’t exist when this team played its first game on Feb. 6. A little more than a month later, in mid-March, UNC was 3-3 following a disheartening 14-9 loss against Massachusetts.

“Playing with guys like (former players) Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey, they had so much pressure on them to make the final four and to be great … and to take the program to the next level,” Austin Pifani, a junior defenseman and team captain. “I guess it just put too much pressure on us in the past and (we) were thinking a little bit too much. And now this year the pressure is off.”

Sankey and Bitter, who was an All-American, were two of UNC’s best players in recent seasons. And yet their last season ended in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals a year ago, where eight UNC teams had ended their seasons since the Tar Heels had last advanced to the national semifinals.

Since losing against Syracuse in the 1993 national championship game, UNC had played in 14 NCAA tournaments. It had entered 11 of those as a national seed. And in five of those 14 tournaments, the Tar Heels’ season ended in defeats by two points or less.

“It’s been three years not making it,” Jake Matthai, a senior midfielder and another captain, said, speaking of his time at UNC. “A quarterfinal loss. A first-round loss. Quarterfinal loss. That’s so tough.

“You can taste it, almost, but you don’t get it … You think about the frustration that is still there, not making it.”

Matthai said he and his teammates, the ones who have been with him along this journey, have thought those thoughts for years now. The setbacks and defeats have fueled off-season workouts and inspired hope of becoming the team to break through, finally.

And yet the outlook seemed bleak after the defeat against Massachusetts in March. After that, Pifani said, “we kind of had a heart to heart.”

“We laid everything out on the table,” he said. “There was no holding back. There were tears shed in that (meeting).”

And many more last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, where UNC advanced to the national semifinals with a 13-9 victory against Notre Dame. The trip was already going to be an emotional one for Breschi, a UNC alum who was the head coach at Ohio State from 1998 through 2008.

Before the game against Notre Dame, Breschi visited his son’s grave. Michael Breschi was 3 when he died in 2004 after he was hit by an automobile in a parking lot. Breschi’s players decided they were dedicating that game to Michael.

“So I cried, again, trying to chest bump and pump everybody up,” Breschi said. “I couldn’t hold it in. It was just a special moment with a special group of young men.”

An unlikely group, it might have seemed not too long ago, to end UNC’s long final four drought. And yet here the Tar Heels are, back to where they hadn’t been since 1993.

Every year at the NCAA lacrosse championships – men’s and women’s – a team that is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its championship is recognized and honored. This year that past champion is from UNC, which won the national championship in 1991.

Breschi was one year removed from school then, and was an assistant coach on that team. And now he and the Tar Heels are back, though he knows how strange it sounds given it has been so long.

“It’s just been a fun ride,” he said, “and it continues.”