Fall Ball Focus: North Carolina Has Several Options in Post-Gray Era

PHOTO BY PEYTON WILLIAMS

Lance Tillman (21 goals, nine assists) is the top returning scorer for UNC.


Few teams in Division I had their fates connected to one player last season quite like North Carolina was tied to Chris Gray.

Part of it was because Gray, who broke former Albany star Lyle Thompson’s Division I points record, was really good.

And part of it was because figuring out how to make the Tar Heels’ offense work around him after graduating nearly all of their midfield contributors from a final four team was a puzzle that was never adequately solved.

So Gray is gone, and odds are the Tar Heels won’t have an 80-point producer. But the hope this fall is they’ll have more options, whether it’s holdovers like Lance Tillman and Dewey Egan or transfer portal imports like Sean Goldsmith (Mercer) and Logan McGovern (Bryant).

“We’re different,” UNC coach Joe Breschi said. “One of the challenges we had in ’21 and certainly last year, Chris Gray was the dodger. I think we have more threats all the way around. Dewey Egan can’t be covered by a short stick. Lance Tillman can’t be covered by a short stick. [Freshman] James Matan can’t be covered by a shorty, and certainly McGovern and Goldsmith can’t be covered by short sticks.”

Tillman (21 goals, nine assists) is the top returning scorer for a team that saw multi-year mainstays Jacob Kelly and Nicky Solomon transfer to Georgetown. He’s also one of the few knowns on an offense that’s staring at something of a reinvention.

The Heels have about 10 players out this fall because of injuries, including Goldsmith and heralded freshman attackman Dominic Pietramala. But the lack of certainty means there’s even more room to experiment on offense.

“There’s no doubt about it that we’re throwing it at the wall and seeing what sticks,” Breschi said. “That’s a great way to put it because we have new faces in new places, and they’re talented. It’s just seeing who fits with who.”

LAST SEASON

The Tar Heels’ midfield exodus after 2021 was always going to lead to something of a transition. It just happened to last all season.

An early 20-8 loss at home to Ohio State was a canary in the coal mine. Nonetheless, North Carolina still made it through March with a 7-2 record and victories over Denver, Johns Hopkins, Richmond and (in what unexpectedly turned out to be its highest-profile triumph) Brown.

Things unraveled in April. The Tar Heels dropped four of their last five, averaging just 6.5 goals in the losses. They largely got solid play in goal from Collin Krieg, but it didn’t prevent North Carolina from finishing 8-6 and well outside the NCAA tournament picture.







BIGGEST FALL QUESTION

Who will emerge on offense?

Breschi recalled how things felt after 2015, when the likes of Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey and Chad Tutton departed and took a ton of experience with them. It was up to a larger cast to deliver, and they did the following spring by leading the unseeded Tar Heels to their first national title since 1991.

“I’m not saying we’re at that level, but it’s a combination of feeling out exactly who fits where, and that’s what the fall is for is just, ‘Who’s got the talent, who are the five or six offensive middies that you’re going to ride in the season?’” Breschi said. “Are you going to stick with four attackmen and move a couple guys to midfield? It’s a work in progress, but I like the pieces we have.”

North Carolina’s eagerness to build a bridge to the future with the portal should help. Goldsmith (35 goals, 16 assists at Mercer ), McGovern (19 goals, 35 assists at Bryant) and Harry Wellford (10 goals, 20 assists at Bucknell) will all have ample opportunity to contribute, and Breschi said Wellford is already regularly drawing a pole at practice.

The freshman is hardly the only newcomer who will make a difference for the Tar Heels, but he is one who is well-positioned to have a longer-lasting impact.

The Gonzaga Prep product from the Washington area has stood out in early fall practices and could lend some versatility in his first season.

“Matan’s been playing great for a freshman, and he’s 6-3 so he could play attack or midfield,” Breschi said.

North Carolina’s portal haul on offense will generate the most attention, but it may have helped itself just as much on defense. Andrew Geppert, an honorable mention all-Ivy defenseman, had a team-high 24 caused turnovers for Brown last season. Former Marist pole JT Roselle was a first team all-Metro Atlantic selection who should solidify the long stick midfielder position.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: TY ENGLISH

Breschi acknowledged that North Carolina didn’t generate nearly as much transition as it would like last season, a function tied to (among other things) graduating a pair of defensemen the year before and not being as crisp with a 10-man ride that’s caused problems for opponents in the past.

English was ranked 45th in his recruiting class by Inside Lacrosse and was part of Canada’s roster at the U21 championships this year, so he’s hardly a sleeper. Still, he played in only four games because of injury as a freshman, and the Tar Heels are looking to use him as a two-way midfielder who could create a spark in unsettled situations.

“I think he’s another one of those Canadian transition box players that could really flourish in his new role,” Breschi said.

Suggested

Most Recent

Long Path to Glory: Siblings Alyssa and Kyle Long Both Undefeated Champs

Alyssa (North Carolina) and Kyle (Maryland) both helped their teams make NCAA history.

A Comeback for the Ages: An Oral History of North Carolina vs. Northwestern

This one had it all — a lightning delay, goalie redemption, an unlikely hero and more.

Why We Chose Cailin Bracken as the December 2022 Cover Star

Bracken's "A Letter to College Sports" helped kickstart mental health conversations.

Out of Darkness, a Light: Behind Cailin Bracken's Letter to College Sports

How Bracken became the voice of a mental health movement in college sports.







Twitter Posts