Fall Ball Focus: North Carolina Depth Paying Dividends

PHOTO BY RISLEY SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Emily Nalls is among UNC's core of talented returners, but there's opportunity abound after an all-time great class graduated.


When a program loses three players who have all been nominated for the Tewaaraton Award at least once the last two years, you’d think it would be in rebuilding mode.

That’s nowhere near the case in Chapel Hill, where North Carolina’s depth has been a hallmark in recent years. Gone are 2022 Tewaaraton finalists Ally Mastroianni and Jamie Ortega. Goalie Taylor Moreno, who was a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award along with Ortega in 2021, also turned her tassel. Ditto for All-American and U.S. national team gold medalist Emma Trenchard and NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player Sam Geiersbach. You get the point.

And yet, the Tar Heels could very well repeat in 2022. A strong core of returners, including All-American Emily Nalls and budding stars like junior attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger and sophomore defender Brooklyn Walker-Welch return.

“We have a great returning crew,” head coach Jenny Levy said.

But there’s also plenty of opportunity — something that’s set the Heels up for a competitive fall. The Tar Heels’ fall slate includes a date with the U.S. national team in the USA Lacrosse Fall Classic on Oct. 15. Levy will coach the Americans, but she recently shared insights on the Tar Heels’ 2023 outlook.

LAST SEASON

What’s left to say about a season that was, quite literally, perfect? The Tar Heels ran the table, producing a 22-0 record, culminating with a 12-11 win over rival Boston College in the title game. The semifinal matchup with Northwestern, which saw UNC rally from a seven-goal second-half deficit to win, was the game of the year. That win broke a hex for the Heels, who had lost three-straight national semifinals, and set the stage for the super senior class to go out on top.







BIGGEST FALL QUESTION: WHO REPLACES TAYLOR MORENO?

The Tar Heels have been a goalie factory over the years. Of all the greats, Moreno might have been the G.O.A.T. She left the program first in saves with 667, the second-most in ACC history, and first in goalie wins (70). She started 76 straight games — another program mark — to end her career.

So, who’s next? Probably Alecia Nichols, who briefly relieved Moreno when she was struggling in the NCAA semis against Northwestern.

“Right now, we see Alecia as our starter,” Levy said. “The fall season will help us get experience back there. Taylor didn’t walk in and star, either. Nobody knew her name until they knew her name.”

Nichols is a solid stopper with an even temperament, something that was on full display when she stepped up with the Heels down and nearly out against Northwestern.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: CAITLYN WURZBURGER

It might seem strange to call Wurzburger a breakout candidate. She was third in goals (34) and second in assists (42) for UNC last season. She made the NCAA tournament’s All-Championship team as a freshman. But to this point, the most prolific scorer in Florida high school girls’ lacrosse history has looked to all-time greats like Ortega and Katie Hoeg for leadership. Now, it’s her offense.

Being the No. 1 option is a role Wurzburger was seemingly born to play. In high school, she broke the national record for points (1,027) — and that’s without her pandemic-canceled senior season. Levy has no doubts that Wurzburger is just as focused on elevating the players around her as she is stepping up her game.

“She has really good chemistry with a lot of the players that weren’t staples in our lineup last year,” Levy said. “She’s bridging that gap from playing with Jamie, Scottie, Ally and Sam. She has plenty of rapport with players who haven’t been out there full-time.”

MARQUEE ADDITION: LAUREN FIGURA

Last year, UNC raided the transfer portal, bringing in Notre Dame All-American Andie Aldave, Penn State’s Olivia Dirks (who returns in 2023) and Geiersbach, who proved to be a ringer from Richmond when she scored eight goals in two games over Championship Weekend. This summer, the Tar Heels were less active. But they did bring in another fifth year from an A-10 program. This time, it’s Lauren Figura, who scored a team-high 72 goals and led Saint Joseph’s to its first conference title in 2022.

“She’s kind of a similar story to Sam,” Levy said, adding that Figura brings big-game experience and leadership to the offense.

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