I was lucky enough to travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to cover both women and men’s NCAA lacrosse national championship. The University of North Carolina was represented in both portions of the tournament, so it was nice being able to cover a team I am familiar with. Both teams fought hard to win the semifinals, where both teams would end up facing a very prestigious University of Maryland team. The ladies cruised their way to their second national championship in school history and second in the last four years (2013 & 2016).
The guys started out on fire from their very impressive semifinal win over Loyola (MD) two days prior, running out to a 4-0 lead. Maryland would eventually get on a run of its own to take the lead for the first time of the game. The contest went back and forth until the boys from College Park had the ball with the time running out. The game was tied 13-13, before a Maryland player found himself creeping by the goal with a chance to score. Carolina’s defense, led by goalie Brian Balkum, made a huge stop to send the game in to overtime. Before the time could run out, Tar Heel attackman Luke Goldstock got into a shoving match with Maryland defender Mike McCarney that resulted in the Heels being down one man with Goldstock sitting in the penalty box. In OT, Maryland worked the ball around until they found their best shot of the game with Connor Kelly – Balkum found his best save of the game. The ball bounced off of his stomach, he was able to corral the ball, and get it cleared for the offense to set up their strategy to become champions. Carolina used good ball movement to get tournament standout Chris Cloutier (NCAA-record nine goals in the semifinals) wide open in front of All-American goalie Kyle Bernlohr. Bernlohr would go on to make the save of the season, saving the Terrapins, momentarily.
The ball hits the ground after the save and defender Mike McCarney decided that would be the best time to get revenge on Goldstock for shoving him. McCarney runs through a crowd of players to hit the Heels attackman in the head, causing the Terps a penalty and giving Carolina the ball with an extra man. The ball got lost on a hidden ball trick before it appeared in Goldstock’s stick as he shot over the goal. The Heels got good ball movement on the following whistle and a cross field pass from Mike Tagliaferri to his running mate Cloutier. Cloutier ended his wonderful tournament performance with a shot that found its way between a few defenders and past the All-American goalie for UNC’s first championship since 1991 and fifth overall.
Coming away from Philly with a southern school winning both championships against a school that is known for their lacrosse success speaks volumes for the growth of the game in the south. Duke has conquered championship weekend three of the last seven years. The level of competition has even changed at the high school level and we are seeing stronger programs and more well-rounder players coming out of the NC area. This tournament has really been a testament to the growth of the sport in the south. We could even go as far to say that lacrosse is no longer a predominantly northern sport. Last year Denver was the first team from west of the Mississippi River to win a championship. Lacrosse was a relatively unknown sport when I was growing up, so it is just amazing to see result of growth in front of my eyes.