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April 7, 2010

Lambrecht: Carolina Jolted by Cup of Joe

by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Lambrecht Archive

"The whole culture has changed," says UNC defenseman Ryan Flanagan. "The energy around here is infectious."

There has rarely been a shortage of formidable lacrosse talent at the University of North Carolina. With its gorgeous campus, great facilities and fair weather, Chapel Hill always has been an attractive place to blue-chip recruits.

The 2010 Tar Heels are bursting with speed, skills, size, depth and possibilities. They might have the best player in Division I in junior attackman Billy Bitter. They have the game’s top-ranked defense, and surely its biggest. They are ranked No. 2, and are off to a 10-0 start for the first time since going undefeated and winning their last NCAA title in 1991. They will face unbeaten, top-ranked Virginia on Saturday, in a contest that could portend a Memorial Day rematch.

And this year’s Tar Heels have so many other ingredients. Carolina is tough. It is disciplined, unselfish and efficient. It is playing with poise and a clear sense of purpose. It knows how to play through adversity and finish games. Witness its last two wins over Maryland (9-7) and Johns Hopkins (11-7), despite the absence of two offensive starters.

In short, the Tar Heels have so many things their once-premier program had been missing for so long.

Mainly, the Tar Heels have second-year coach Joe Breschi, the author of the turnaround that had to happen eventually, once Carolina hired the right man to lead the job.

After suffering through most of eight years under former coach and alumnus John Haus, Carolina has found its man in Breschi, the Baltimore native and Chapel Hill alum who has trashed the old ways and given Carolina the medicine it needed -- tough love, accountability, non-stop enthusiasm, excellent use of personnel and dogged preparation.

“The whole culture has changed,” said junior defenseman Ryan Flanagan, who stepped gingerly around the issue of Haus -- the coach who signed him -- yet revealed a night-and-day perspective regarding Breschi.

“The energy around here is infectious. [Breschi] comes in with this passion every day. Being prepared and having attention to detail is everything to him. The respect and trust guys have toward him and the coaching staff is different. He’s all about the lacrosse family. It’s something that may not have been here in the past.”

You don’t have to read much between those lines. Carolina, once the capital of underachievement in Division I, is plenty good because it has a collection of fine players, young and old, that are as organized and driven as they are good. And Carolina, once a soft group that would fold at the first signs of trouble, has grown up and found resolve under Breschi.

The losing culture wasn’t something that blossomed under Haus. That problem stretched well back into the 1990s under coach Dave Klarmann, and it continued under Haus, whose dour, withdrawn demeanor offers a striking contrast to Breschi.

How in the world has this program gone 17 years without seeing a final four? How did they miss the NCAA tournament five times under Haus, while going 0-12 against the ACC in his last four years?

“When you’re on a campus where every other team has won a conference championship, that is embarrassing,” Flanagan said.

No more. These Tar Heels already have beaten Maryland and Duke with relative ease. These Tar Heels pore through 30-page scouting reports, watch video cut-ups incessantly, practice daily at 8 a.m., devour the game before going to class. These Tar Heels are in tremendous shape and respect the game.

These Tar Heels have no choice.

Breschi, fresh off an outstanding, 11-year run at Ohio State, made that clear early on. After meeting with the team officially for the first time in August 2008, he announced fall practices would begin at 5 a.m. Each player had to take a physical readiness test. Run a mile in under six minutes, then a half-mile in under three minutes, then a quarter-mile lap in under one minute.

Six players passed that first test. When preseason practices got underway in January 2009, about half the team passed. By this year, all but five or six had passed.

Then, there was the St. Patrick’s Day incident last year, when some 40 players enjoyed the holiday festivities a bit too much. Breschi responded by kicking them all out of the locker room for nearly two weeks.

“We had about five guys left in the locker room,” Breschi recalled. “Nobody got arrested, but we needed to shrink down the social life a little bit. Our message was if you’re going to treat this as a club team, we’re going to treat you like a club team.

“We all listened to how disgruntled they were [under Haus]. Our response was how good do you want to be? You have to commit to be great, and there will be consequences for not going along with the rules. I think that was a turning point in terms of the culture. Guys really started buying in after that.”

These Tar Heels are all in. And finally, Carolina is well on its way back.


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