Playing Her 'Best Lacrosse Ever,' Kayla Wood is UNC's Clutch X-Factor


Kayla Wood’s caused turnover for North Carolina near the end of its quarterfinal game against Stony Brook on Saturday was arguably her most timely play of the season.

The senior has stepped up for the Tar Heels throughout their 20-0 campaign — five ground balls and four draw controls across their two ACC tournament games, even a first career assist against Virginia in April — but this one came during the year’s most pivotal moment yet.

With her team up only one goal with less than four minutes left, Wood knocked down a Seawolves pass just shy of midfield. Caitlyn Wurzburger scooped up the ground ball. About a minute later, Ally Mastroianni scored on a free-position shot to give North Carolina a two-goal lead that would help seal its spot in the Final Four.

“On the draw before that, I was talking to all my teammates down on the defensive end, and I just said, ‘We’re not losing this game. We’re going to get the ball back, and we’re going to make something happen,’” Wood said. “I read the play, and my teammates really helped me make that play happen. It didn’t happen on my own.”

Wood is a key part of a Tar Heels defensive unit that, at only 6.35 goals allowed per game, is the best in the nation, and the program’s best statistically since 1997. She’s played in all 20 games for North Carolina this season — the first 11 off the bench, and then the last nine as a starter — and has become an essential contributor on an already stacked defense, on an already-stacked roster.

“She’s a senior who has been in and out of our core lineup since she was a freshman, and this year she’s playing her best lacrosse ever,” head coach Jenny Levy said. “She’s a very poised player — you don’t ever see her get too rowdy, or too down. She just goes with it, and at the same time, she can turn it on and really make some good plays.”

A three-sport high school athlete who earned Under Armour All-America honors in lacrosse at Catonsville just outside of Baltimore, Wood arrived in Chapel Hill in 2017 among one of the Tar Heels’ best recruiting classes in recent memory. She made an instant impact, starting 20 of North Carolina’s 21 games that season and helping anchor a defense that would advance all the way to the 2018 Final Four.

That 2018 season was a formative introduction to the college game for a freshman class that’s now leading the Tar Heels back to the Final Four. Wood, Mastroianni, attacker Jamie Ortega, midfielder Scottie Rose Growney and fellow defender Emma Trenchard all played in at least 18 games during that campaign.

As a sophomore and junior, Wood mostly saw time on the field off the bench but still played an important role. In 2019, she was third on the team in draw controls while also causing eight turnovers and eventually starting in that year’s NCAA semifinal loss to Boston College.

She made her first start of 2021 in a defensive midfielder position in a win over Notre Dame on April 10, and she’s played that same role through the rest of the season. Her senior campaign so far has brought both the most success she’s seen while wearing the Carolina blue — namely, both regular-season and tournament ACC titles for the first time since 2017 — and opportunities for reflection on her time and growth in Chapel Hill.

“When you’re an underclassman, there’s all this pressure that you have to do well, you have to perform a certain way,” she said. “Something that really helped me was realizing that you’re not going to play perfect, and you’re going to make mistakes. But what are you going to do with that mistake? It’s all about how you respond to it, and that’s been something to help me improve my game a lot.”

This year especially, Wood is following through on the reason why she chose Carolina: to play among the best of the best. The Tar Heels had a nation-leading seven players earn USA Lacrosse All-America honors, including Trenchard and goalie Taylor Moreno (both first team) and defender Catie Woodruff (third team).

Some could view an environment like that at North Carolina — a program consistently full of stars and big names across all academic year levels, perhaps no more so than this season — as a tough spot for a player to find her best role and fit, among such talent and competition. But Wood has found the opposite. It’s been a place to learn.

“We’re always giving and taking and learning a lot from each other. Other people are going to have qualities that you don’t have, or are going to be stronger in different ways than you are, and it’s about learning how to turn your weaknesses into strengths,” Wood said. “For instance, I’m playing with Emma Trenchard. Here we are, in the same grade, and I’ve learned so much from her. It’s all about how open your mind is willing to be.”

Wood and the Tar Heels have the experience of two previous Final Four trips that has helped prepare them for this year’s go-around, but they’re motivated now to make their first national championship game appearance since 2016.

North Carolina managed to slow down Charlotte North and Boston College in their March regular-season meeting, but as they face off again on a bigger stage, they’ll hope for some more clutch moments from Wood and the defense to stretch their season one more day.

“Looking back on that play on Saturday, that was a pivotal point in the game. Our upperclassmen did a really good job of anchoring it, and [Wood] was one of the players who started it,” Levy said. “She’s been a great player this year and has been in a lot of big moments. I know she’s looking forward to Friday.”

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