DURHAM, N.C. – Luke Goldstock and Chris Cloutier led their band of brothers to the 2017 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship title as the 20th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels defeated the seventh-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish by a 14-10 margin at Koskinen Stadium on Sunday.
As defending NCAA champion, North Carolina knew that it faced another elimination game against the Fighting Irish, and that nothing short of winning was necessary to continue playing for the opportunity to repeat.
They were in the same situation on Friday when the Tar Heels beat top-ranked Syracuse 16-15 in the tournament semifinal.
Captain Austin Pifani described it as part of “just another lacrosse game”, but more importantly, it was another chance for these players to come together and play as brothers, knowing that it could be for the last time.
The Tar Heels soldiered on to face Notre Dame.
Goldstock’s four goals, all tallied in the fourth quarter, and Cloutier’s three, scored in the first half, established and reinforced the sizable advantage that the Tar Heels needed to hold off the Irish.
Defensively, Pifani and his defensive unit allowed goalkeeper Brian Balkam to see a fair number of the 31 shots that came towards his cage, and for him to make 11 saves accordingly.
Brendan Gleason’s three goals and two from Bryan Costabile provided hope at times for the Irish, but they were unable to overpower UNC’s desire to win.
“They outplayed us today, simple as that,” Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan said.
“I don’t think I did a good job preparing our team for what we saw today. That’s on me. We have to be ready tactically and emotionally, and I’m not sure that we were when we came out of the box today. We ended up basically losing by the margin of what we gave them at the beginning of the game. You can’t spot somebody in this league very often and get a win. Syracuse found it out yesterday, we found it out today.”
A critical and required outcome that enabled North Carolina to win was Cloutier’s leadership and play throughout the weekend.
It was not surprising that he was selected the Tournament MVP because he did the same thing in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Similar to last season’s run to the national championship, Cloutier rose to the occasion and led his team to claim another title, one the Tar Heels last won in 2013.
Though an individual honor, he deflected the attention on him back to his teammates – his brothers.
“Our game plan every game is we’re gonna share the ball, it doesn’t matter who scores,” he said.
“Luckily, I got my chances in the first half of the game. When I don’t get my chances, I know that someone else will, especially Luke Goldstock. He steps up in huge games. He always has. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to and can always depend on, as everyone else can.”
There are no individuals on this team.
At least, not when you ask them to speak about their own play because it will always include a reference to everyone else and playing like a family.
They’re that close-knit.
“That’s a culture here,” UNC head coach Joe Breschi said after receiving a Gatorade shower from his players.
“Guys come in and they understand the kids that we’re recruiting that you’re part of a family. You stick to your brother next to you. You care about him and you play together, you play for each other.”
Knowing their backs were against the wall, and facing the possibility of missing the NCAA postseason entirely after blazing through it last year, the Tar Heels seemed to have regained the ability to tack and guide themselves through choppy waters better than earlier in the season.
“They’re competitors – they go out there and compete for each other,” Breschi said.
“I think part of our early-season woes was we were thinking a little bit about what we succeeded (doing) last year and how much that family celebrated through the Fall, and even into this season. Then we finally had a nice sit-down after the Maryland game and said, ‘you know, this is a new season with the ACC and we have to really step up and commit ourselves to the family and to greatness.’ Although we were close and fell short a couple of times, we kept gettin’ better. I think we’re peakin’ at the right time.”
Having now dodged self-inflicted elimination, and not knowing where they will start the postseason, there is no doubt that the Tar Heels are confident and believe in their ability to win games under pressure.
“That was just energy, teamwork – we were just all working as one unit,” Goldstock added.
“It’s kind of like last year. We’re just running off energy right now, and we don’t think anyone can stop us right now.”
The band of brothers from Chapel Hill march on.
ACC Men’s Lacrosse Championship Most Valuable Player
Chris Cloutier, North Carolina
ACC Men’s Lacrosse Championship All-Tournament Team
Jack Bruckner, Duke
Chris Cloutier, North Carolina
Luke Goldstock, North Carolina
Jack Lambert, North Carolina
Andy Matthews, North Carolina
Bryan Costabile, Notre Dame
Shane Doss, Notre Dame
Brendan Gleason, Notre Dame
John Sexton, Notre Dame
Jordan Evans, Syracuse
Sergio Salcido, Syracuse