With Opportunities Abound, Big Roles Up for Grabs on North Carolina

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

The keys to the North Carolina offense likely now belong to Caitlyn Wurzburger.


In May, North Carolina completed its redemption tour on top. After three straight losses in the national semifinals, the Tar Heels broke through, topping Boston College to win their first NCAA title since 2016.

It gave some of the program’s all-time greatest players a storybook send-off. Scottie Rose Growney, Ally Mastroianni, Taylor Moreno, Jamie Ortega and Emma Trenchard began their college careers the year after the Heels graduated All-Americans in Molly Hendrick, Sammy Jo Tracy and Caylee Waters. They went on to win an ACC title and advance to the Final Four, where they lost to James Madison. After the game — the last for Marie McCool — Jenny Levy pointed to then-freshman Ortega and said the torch had been passed.

With Ortega and her classmates gone, it’s been passed once again, but the players taking it haven’t forgotten who set the bar and how.

“The standard of excellence has been passed down from player to player,” Levy said. “Those guys brought a standard every day … the younger guys have something to model and make their own.”

It’s a new year in Chapel Hill. Though notable names are no longer on the roster, one of UNC’s calling cards the last several years has been depth. Several Tar Heels who played significant roles on last year’s national championship team are back, including attacker Caitlyn Wurzburger and defenders Brooklyn Walker-Welch and Emily Nalls.

“The core of our team that returns is great,” Levy said. “There is a lot of opportunity on the field this year, but I think that’s a positive thing.”

For two years, Wurzburger has been part of a constellation of stars on offense but still behind the likes of Ortega, Growney and Katie Hoeg. But she’s no stranger to being the featured player. She arrived on campus as Inside Lacrosse’s top recruit after a storied career at American Heritage-Delray that saw her become the nation’s all-time leading high school girls’ scorer with 1,023 points. And that’s without playing her senior season because of COVID-19.

Wurzburger will pull from her high school experience when she draws the nation’s top defenders in 2023.

“I’m expecting that because our top goal scorers are gone now,” Wurzburger said. “I’m excited about [it] because it will open up opportunities for others. Using my lax IQ to my advantage from my high school and club years and having the ability to be flexible on offense is going to be a strong suit.”

Wurzburger certainly doesn’t have any issues sharing the ball. She was second on the team with 42 assists last season to go along with 34 goals. Levy says it all starts behind the scenes.

“Her incredible work ethic and passion for the game is second to none,” Levy said. “It doesn’t matter if it is gameday or practice. She is dialed. Her game experience is really good starting her junior year this year.”

Part of Wurzburger’s game experience includes Sixes. She earned a silver medal with the U.S. team at The World Games, and it helped her fine-tune more tools she hopes to carry into her junior season.

“I got to learn better strategies for when I ride,” Wurzburger said. “It sped up my game. I can be more creative.”







Wurzburger and the U.S. lost to a Canadian team that included Walker-Welch, who earned notoriety when she stepped to Charlotte North during UNC’s regular-season bout with Boston College. Walker-Welch also defended North, who Levy coached on Team USA, during the World Lacrosse Women’s Championship this summer. Nalls also played in the World Championship for England, where she went toe-to-toe with Australia’s Hannah Nielsen and took home a bronze medal.

Walker-Welch and Nalls will look to raise the standard Trenchard helped set in Chapel Hill.

“Emma took the top matchups last year, but those guys will anchor our defense at a high level for the next two to three years,” Levy said.

Nalls and Walker-Welch will play in front of a new netminder this year with the graduation of Moreno. Levy says Alecia Nicholas is the favorite for the starting job.

“Her temperament in cage is very good,” Levy said. “She’s a great ball-stopper. You don’t know her name, but you didn’t know Taylor’s name until you knew her name.”

Some fans do know Nicholas’ name, though. She subbed in with UNC down in the national semifinal to Northwestern. Moreno returned, and the Tar Heels staged a comeback for the ages.

“We think highly enough of her that she got into that semifinal game,” Levy said. “It was a tough situation to go into.”

Stella Harrison, who totaled just under 13 minutes of play in two appearances, will push Nicholas in the fall.

“Stella worked her butt off this summer because she wants to compete for that starting role,” Levy said. “She refuses to go away.”

The Heels also added graduate transfer Lauren Figura, who helped lead Saint Joseph’s to its first-ever Atlantic 10 championship in 2022. Figura, a star during postseason play, hopes to conjure up some similar magic to Sam Geiersbach, the unlikely 2022 NCAA championship Most Outstanding Player who transferred from a different A-10 school, Richmond.

Then there’s a freshman class that Levy believes can make an immediate impact, much like Ortega and Trenchard did as rookies. Kaleigh Harden, Darcy Felter and Ellie Traggio are versatile midfielders, while Kiley Mottice is likely a future offensive target. Levy calls Molly Longfield a “prototypical Carolina defender” with speed and power.

The influx of youth has injected some new personality into the locker room.

“This team has a great energy,” Levy said. “They’re fun. They like to dance, laugh and have a good time.”

The Heels hope to dance deep into May. But for now, Wurzburger is excited about the unknown.

“We lost so many players,” Wurzburger said. “There isn’t a scouting report on us, which I love. Anything is up for grabs. It’s going to be very competitive. What is the 2022-23 Carolina team? We don’t know yet. We’re all just itching to get back on the field.”

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