CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A day after the fourth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels had been announced as the No. 3 seed in the upcoming 2015 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament, head coach Joe Breschi talked about the path this year’s squad has followed.
Back in October, he talked about focusing on peaking at the right time, and not making the season a sprint, but more of a marathon for the best performances from his team to come in May.
With a 12-3 record overall, and playing with one of the most experienced and identifiable roster of players in the country, the Tar Heels once again enter the postseason with a lot of hype.
And add in a little cautious optimism.
The Tar Heels will make their 30th NCAA Tournament appearance when they face off against the 12th-ranked Colgate Raiders at Fetzer Field on Sunday.
It’s a familiar setting and situation that they and those following the team know well.
They’ve made the postseason every year that Breschi has led the team, going on seven years now – an accomplishment that’s expected at Carolina.
However, earning a spot in Final Four weekend has been the elusive rung on the ladder they’ve fallen short of each time, making the quarterfinals three times, with the most recent being in 2013.
During that season, led by First Team All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC ) Player of Year, and eventual all-time leading scorer Marcus Holman, North Carolina tied for first in ACC regular-season play, and won its first conference Tournament title since 1996.
It was a monumental step that excited many in the Triangle and around the country.
Would the Tar Heels finally prop themselves back up to the days of the early 90s, and return to the Final Four and contend for the national championship?
The last time North Carolina won an NCAA title was in 1991, the fourth during a period of 11 seasons that saw the Tar Heels represent the gold standard of college lacrosse – also winning in 1981, 1982, and 1986.
The flash and brilliance of the millennial editions of the Tar Heels led by alum Breschi, once again offered that hope.
However, after firing shots and bulging the twine numerous times throughout the regular season, playing as tough a schedule as any other team in the country, they came up short for one reason or another.
Credit the Denver Pioneers as the bad guys who’ve prevented North Carolina from advancing further in the last three consecutive NCAA postseasons.
The opposition had figured out how to neutralize North Carolina’s potent offensive play just long enough to exploit the discipline of the defense and gain the edge to beat them.
Year in and year out, the team’s offensive play and output never disappoints – it’s a staple of Tar Heels lacrosse.
They can run n’ gun with anyone and it’s to their advantage to do so, which has helped to get them back to the upper tier of the rankings this season.
However, heading into this weekend, they are coming off two consecutive one-goal losses in the dying minutes against top-ranked Syracuse (9-8) and second-ranked Notre Dame (15-14).
The shortfalls were emotional ones to suffer, but critical to recover from in order to become more resilient come Tournament time.
While other teams like two-time defending NCAA champion Duke played one more regular-season game to stay in ‘game shape’ heading into the postseason, the Tar Heels took the other tact to rest, recover, and regroup while the players focused on their academic responsibilities.
“It was needed,” Breschi said of not competing for a week.
“We had six straight weeks of top-seven teams or so. We just needed some time to decompress and get a bunch of days off. I think it allows the players to not only get their body right, but their mind right as well – with the academic stress and the athletic stress as well. I think it was good to get some time and get back at it.”
Breschi has adjusted his philosophy slightly and built in time to allow an exceptionally talented team to understand its shortfalls – from the psychological and the physical perspectives.
In the past, they themselves may have been the kryptonite to their super heroic efforts and talent that prevented them from moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
Back then, it seemed that going up against the same tough competition in the playoffs as during the regular season showed how little the Tar Heels had left in the tank to win and successfully run the most important gauntlet of competition that took place in May.
This season, they’ve taken time to process the emotion of winning, and more importantly that of losing.
“The Notre Dame game was an emotional one for both teams,” Breschi said.
“The way we approached the next week in preparation for Syracuse was fantastic. It was unfortunate (to lose). We talked about how to improve and get better, but we didn’t dwell on it – and the same thing with Syracuse. Anytime you have an opportunity to play a team again, after beating them two weeks earlier and playing them again – it was another emotional battle of a road trip for us – back-to-back weeks on the road.”
“I really credit our guys – I think we were ready,” he continued.
“I don’t think we played a great game and that’s a credit to Syracuse and how they played. They were able to execute down the stretch. Heck, it was 8-8 for a long time. We had four or five opportunities to win that game, but again, at the end of the day they made the play at the end and we didn’t. I credit our guys going down 8-5 and battling all the way back and holding them scoreless for over 20-some minutes there, getting ourselves back in the game and having a chance of winning. I think it’s those types of things we talk about as a strength going into the NCAA playoffs and learning from those situations.”
With all that said, is North Carolina ready to make the critical push to return to the Final Four?
“I feel like we’re playing really good lacrosse. Have we played that complete 60-minute game yet? No, I don’t think that’s been accomplished by us, but that’s certainly our goal going into the NCAA Tournament.”
“We’re focusing on the task at hand,” he concluded.
“We learn from the past, so you gotta’ continue to pound away at what’s right in front of you. You can’t worry about what’s beyond. You should focus on what’s in front of you. We’re gonna’ focus on us, as we have the last week-and-a-half, and really start to attack what Colgate’s gonna’ bring to the table. We’re gonna’ treat it like we always do – it’s a one-game season.”
That is, a one-game, 60-minute season.