UNC Searching for New Identity After Losing 10 to Graduation

PHOTO COURTESY OF UNC ATHLETICS

Defenseman Ryan Macri was named as one of five captains that will help lead this version of North Carolina's men's lacrosse team.


US Lacrosse Magazine released the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Men’s Preseason Top 20 on Jan. 8. Team-by-team previews will be unveiled on uslaxmagazine.com throughout January and will also appear as part of the magazine’s NCAA preview edition that mails to US Lacrosse members Feb. 1 — opening day of the 2018 college lacrosse season.

No. 10 North Carolina

2017 Record: 8-8 (1-3 ACC)
Coach: Joe Breschi (10th year)
All-Time Record: 487-296-2
NCAA Appearances: 32
Final Fours: 13
Championships: 5

Collegiate coaches are always in search of leaders among the young adults under their tutelage. Joe Breschi is no different, especially this season.

A year after the Tar Heels made the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight time under Breschi, before losing in the first round to Albany to finish with an 8-8 record – the first non-winning record of the Breschi era – North Carolina’s identity is foremost on his mind.

“We lost probably the deepest [senior] class we’ve had in quite some time,” said Breschi, alluding to the group that was led by such key performers as faceoff man Stephen Kelly, attackman Luke Goldstock and defenseman Austin Pifani. “We lost 10 seniors, and nine of them played [significant minutes]. We’ve got so many guys in new leadership spots. We’re anxious to see what we’re going to be.”

The Tar Heels started to answer the leadership question in the fall by electing five co-captains. Defensemen Kyle Mathie, Joe Kenna and Ryan Macri, defensive midfielder William McBride and attackman Chris Cloutier inherited the honors. The fall season also came and went like a deep breath of fresh air to Breschi, who thought the team responded well to a scene lacking a clear hierarchy.

“We did a lot of shifting guys around, trying some new roles,” Breschi said. “It almost feels like the end of an era. I think that livened up the fall. The guys sense there are a lot of opportunities. We’re not penciling people in.”

With half of last year’s starters having graduated, and a sizable core of players remaining from the team that two years ago won Carolina’s first national championship since 1991, the question marks multiply.

How will the two-headed faceoff team of senior Riley Graham and junior Charles Kelly fare? Will freshman goalie Luke Millican overtake sophomore Jack Pezzula, with Brian Balkam having graduated? Will junior Jack Rowlett, who seemed like the replacement for Pifani as leader of the close defense, become an athletic force at LSM? Will Kyle Mathie’s move from LSM to close defense work out, as he works in with Macri, Kenna and sophomore Jake Peden?

By moving Timmy Kelly from midfield to attack, the Tar Heels should have quite a trio down low that includes Cloutier and junior Andy Matthews. The midfield presents a jumble of good players for the coaches to sort out.

Sophomores William Perry and Justin Anderson, each of whom scored 14 goals a year ago, figure to anchor the first unit. Senior Brian Cannon might be a fine leader for the second group. Breschi is determined to find work for sophomores Tanner Cook and freshman Sean Morris, who were excellent in the fall.

“I can’t wait to see what it all looks like,” Breschi said.






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The Case For North Carolina

When you think of the Tar Heels, you think of offense, lots of it. And although Carolina is retooling at midfield, it once again sports an attack that should demand respect on a weekly basis. Senior Chris Cloutier, who scored a record 19 NCAA tournament goals to lead the Heels to their fifth NCAA title in 2016, is back after a 50-point season last year. With its top feeder back in junior Andy Matthews (27 assists) and with Timmy Kelly (18 goals) moving from midfield, this unit should be potent.

The Case Against North Carolina

This team arguably has more question marks than any squad Breschi has coached in Chapel Hill. Gone is faceoff man Stephen Kelly, a rock at that spot throughout his time there. Gone is All-American defenseman Austin Pifani, attackman Luke Goldstock (45 points) and goalie Brian Balkam, a steady presence for several years. Sophomore William Perry (14 goals) leads a young midfield. The Heels might be too young for their own good this year. Their pedigree will be severely tested.

Path to the Playoffs

A year ago, the Tar Heels entered the ACC tournament with a 6-7 record and no room for error in their quest to reach the NCAAs. Carolina, which had gone 2-6 against ranked teams to that point, fought their way into May by knocking off top-ranked Syracuse and No. 6 Notre Dame. The Heels will have the usual nonconference obstacles in Denver, Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Richmond, each of whom they failed to beat in 2017. The ACC is the ACC. There could be more thin ice ahead in April.

Players To Watch

Chris Cloutier, A, Sr.
36 G, 33 GB

At 6 feet, 227 pounds, Cloutier is one of the more physical and creative scoring forces in the game. But Breschi wants last year’s ACC tournament MVP — and also the key to Carolina’s drive to the NCAA title in 2016 — to be more consistent as the most seasoned player in another fine-looking Carolina attack.

Luke Millican, GK, Fr.
5.75 GAA, 145 saves (HS)

With Brian Balkam graduated, the two-man goalie competition is open between sophomore and veteran backup Jack Pezzulla and Millican, a 6-1, 165-pound product of Dallas Jesuit in Southlake, Texas. Millican might have a leg up after a terrific showing in the fall in an 11-10 win over Ohio State.

Riley Graham, FO, Sr.
53.8 FO%, 14 GB

Stephen Kelly, who took 344 draws last year, graduated after dominating the position for four seasons, and it will be up to Graham and junior Charles Kelly primarily to help the Tar Heels control momentum in 2017. Graham has the edge in game experience. He won 21 of 39 faceoff attempts last season.

National Rankings

Category

Rank

Value

Offense 18th 11.50 GPG
Defense 34th 10.44 GAA
Faceoffs 28th 52.1%
Ground Balls 21st 29.88/game
Caused TO 33rd 6.69/game
Shooting 33rd 28.9%
Man-Up 21st 39.1%
Man-Down 49th 59.6%
Assists 33rd 5.81/game
Turnovers 30th 13.25/game
Clearing 19th 88.7%

Power Ratings (Scale of 1-5)

Offense
⭐⭐⭐

Defense
⭐⭐⭐

Goalkeeping
⭐⭐⭐

Faceoff
⭐⭐

28.9

Typically a top-10 offense that shoots comfortably over 30 percent, the Tar Heels finished just below 29 percent as shooters in 2017. That is pedestrian by Carolina standards under Breschi. It partly explains why the Tar Heels failed to reach double digits six times — and lost five of those decisions.

5-Year Trend
Man-Down Defense

Year

Rank

Pct

2013 4th 13.35
2014 4th 13.00
2015 3rd 14.35
2016 6th 13.06
2017 18th 11.50

Coach Confidential
Joe Breschi

 “Trying to repeat is as difficult a challenge as there is in sports. After last year, with the bull’s-eye on us that much bigger, I think our guys realized they can’t just turn it on and off. Now, we don’t have the stars we used to have. We have to enjoy being grinders.”

Enemy Lines
Rival Coaches

 “Joe Breschi has always surrounded himself with talented and fit (who runs more than these guys in the offseason?) teams, and the 2018 squad is no exception.  The 2017 campaign was a struggle, but this is more of the norm than the exception after a program wins the national championship. And then in the playoffs, the Great Danes and the Gods with their driving rainstorm created too much adversity to overcome. There is certainly goal scoring in Chris Cloutier and intelligent playmaking skills from Timmy Kelly and Andy Matthews. Will McBride, Will Perry and Tanner Cook are dangerous offensive midfielders. The defense is just about the most athletic in the nation, though the graduation of Austin Pifani will need to be reckoned with. ... This talented group will be a tough out, but may not have the right pieces for another title run. ... They lost a couple key guys like Goldstock and Kelly, but they have so much coming back. Offense will return a lot. Questions in goal and FO. Talented and now with something more to prove. ... Extremely talented. The Cloutier kid, he goes as the other guys go. When the other players are playing well and you go up against any great player, it’s tough. They’ve lost some good people, but they don’t rebuild, they reload and retool. North Carolina has got a depth of talent that’s as good as anybody out there. They obviously have some guys who were part of a championship roster. They’re going to be extremely formidable, as you would expect. They’re very talented and they have all those big ACC kids running around."

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