CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Don’t let the North Carolina Tar Heels’ current 10-6 record fool you.
This Tar Heels team is not the underdog it’s been pegged as heading into Saturday’s NCAA men’s lacrosse semifinal game against the seventh-seeded Loyola Greyhounds (14-3).
Yes, North Carolina had to earn an at-large spot into the 2016 postseason tournament, particularly during what head coach Joe Breschi has described as a roller-coaster-ride of a season.
They’ve been up, winning games they were expected to; they’ve been down losing games they shouldn’t have; and back up winning games that they were capable of winning, and did.
Breschi has stated his team is “playing for each other” and that “we don’t have superstars”.
All true, for this year’s team and all others that have come before it.
He’s said it to me every year and is a part of how he develops his team chemistry.
Describing his team as “embracing the underdog role” has also been a statement he’s made in years’ past heading into NCAA tournament play.
That’s because eight quarterfinal trips dating back to 1994, four during his tenure, have come up short for the Tar Heels.
Thus, why not embrace the underdog role – a great ploy on the surface coming from a heady and emotional bench leader.
Well, that threshold has been passed.
Now, as one of four teams remaining with the top-seeded Maryland Terrapins (16-2) taking on the fifth-seeded Brown Bears (16-2) in the other semifinal match-up, the Tar Heels have as much of a chance to claim the title as the others.
Sure, while combined Maryland, Brown, and Loyola have seven losses, just one more than North Carolina, what matters now is which team will best capitalize on its opportunities to win.
The three other teams haven’t experienced the adversity and agony of losing games they were expected to win.
North Carolina has.
They also haven’t won games that many expected them not to win.
North Carolina has.
Up and down the coaster has rolled.
The Tar Heels haven’t got sick of it; they haven’t screamed ‘get me off this thing!’
No, they just gripped a little tighter, held on to one another, and laughed and let the positive emotion of it all carry them forward.
Back-to-back wins over Notre Dame have been the best examples of that.
Now in Philadelphia, taking to the practice field, they know what’s ahead of them – another huge climb with a drop that will bring everything to an abrupt halt with a loss, or provide the exhilaration that the ride has provided for them so far to continue on.
That’s what smart and experienced teams destined to do great things are prepared for.
Underdogs know what to expect, but they don’t want to let others know that.
Don’t let overall records and seeding numbers fool you.
Though not the favorite, the Tar Heels are no longer the underdog either.
That’s the mindset that I believe this team is now playing with whether they say it or not.
North Carolina knows how this ride rolls and where it will stop on Monday.
They understand that they’ll have to dig deep down and scrap harder than they ever have this season.
The Tar Heels are fully capable of this and have done so to get to Final Four weekend.
With the collective belief that their ride is one of destiny, they will do their best to hang on and experience it all through to the end, and as a result, hoist a championship trophy.