Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 2 North Carolina (Women)
There are holes to fill on defense, but no team in the country is suited to challenge top-ranked Maryland than the talent-laden Tar Heels.
North Carolina at a Glance
2015 Record: 18-4
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Levy purposely schedules a tough slate for her team. The tougher the schedule, the better they perform. In 2015, North Carolina was the NCAA runner-up. In 2013, the Tar Heels were crowned NCAA champions for the first time in program history. They were eliminated in the quarterfinals in both 2014 and 2012, but in the final four in 2011. “Every year, we play a hard schedule and we don’t shy away from it,” said Levy.
1. UNC is Maryland's No. 1 threat.
Appearing in two of the past three NCAA championship games — both against Maryland — has transformed the Tar Heels into a powerhouse of their own. Losing to the Terps in 2015 after a triple-overtime win in 2013 will hardly will be forgotten. "It stings to be a goal short," Levy said. "We know what it takes. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It doesn't mean anything will be given to us because we lost last year." In the past three seasons, no team has played consistently as well against Maryland as North Carolina. The average goal differential in the last six games of the series is 1.83.
2. Caylee Waters earned her stripes.
Waters was the only goalie from a top-five team to finish with a top-five save percentage (49.6). She also started all 22 games, edging Megan Ward. The 2015 IWLCA Goalie of the Year was named a captain for the second straight season. "What separates her is two things: She loves the game and she takes more shots than any goalie I've ever coached," Levy said. "She set the bar very high for any goalie to come to Carolina, I can tell you that."
3. The Tar Heels can't be overlooked.
North Carolina was one of the least experienced teams last season due to a myriad of injuries, trying to work in the newcomers. "We get overlooked a lot," Levy said. "It's because we play a team game and don't always focus on one particular player like some of the other teams. It's just the style." But don't be shocked to see a loaded offense come spring. Everyone's back, including senior Aly Messinger, junior Maggie Bill and sophomore Marie McCool, plus the now-healthy Sydney Holman, Molly Hendrick and Sammy Jo Tracy. "We covered a lot of ground last year to get to where we got," Levy said.
* returning starters
Messinger led North Carolina with 42 goals and 60 points. She has been the Tar Heels' most consistent player in her three seasons and was impressive in fall ball. "Aly is a four-year starter who has played in more big games than anyone on our roster," Levy said. "She's a human mismatch because of her quickness."
The only representative from Florida on Carolina’s roster is coming off a silver medal performance with the U.S. under-19 team and already made an immediate impact in the fall as a freshman. “[She is] making an impact on the program because she’s hungry,” said Levy.
Hendrick scored five goals in an 18-5 win over Louisville last April before tearing her ACL in that game, shelving her for the season. “We absolutely annihilated them and a lot of that had to do with the play of Molly,” Levy said. “She was outrageous that day.” A healthy Hendrick, a junior attacker/midfielder bodes well for North Carolina.
Biggest Question Mark
Some teams may lose one defender to graduation, but the Tar Heels lost their entire starting defense in Margaret Corzel, Caileigh Sindall and Courtney Waite, plus an additional threat in Sarah Scott coming off the draw. Can the Core Four be replaced? Levy is confident in her options, which include senior Mallory Frysinger, juniors Steph Lobb, Maggie Auslander and Carly Davis and freshman Erin Kelly, a U.S. U19 team defender.
"She set the bar very high for any goalie to come to Carolina," coach Jenny Levy says of Caylee Waters. (Greg Wall)
What rival coaches say about the Tar Heels
"Best goalie and minimal point production lost. Best suited to take down Maryland. The most athletic and fast team in the country."
"Defense will reload, and they still have an incredible keeper."
"Hard to keep this crafty attack off the board, and always tough to score against."
"Ton of returners on the offensive end (Maggie Bill, Sammy Jo Tracy, Aly Messinger), Marie McCool with one year under her belt, No. 1 incoming class. Weakness: Replacing Margaret Corzel as defensive leader."
"Talented across every position. Athleticism is their ace in the hole. A bitter taste of a championship loss should motivate them all season. While the Tar Heels will face some challenges with a new defense, North Carolina has proven to be the most dangerous team to another Maryland dynasty."
"They're tough every year. Their defense took a hit, but she has a lot of her good attackers back."
"I'm too familiar with that team. They're loaded. It looks like in the last five years, Jenny has really hit her stride as a coach. When graduation seems like it hits them hard, they just reload. They play that great up-tempo style that everyone knows. First and foremost, everyone's going to have to be prepared to handle that multi-faceted offense. It's kind of like trying to stop a seven-headed monster. They play with an attitude, they play hard, and they play together. If you can solve that, you can find success, but they're going to have a very realistic shot at playing on the final weekend again."
"They're so fast and they're so athletic. Their younger players got a lot of experience and that's going to help them."
"They're loaded. The question mark is how patient will the kids be that don't get that early nod. They're a team with great speed and agility."
Meetings between Maryland and North Carolina since 2010 when the Terps returned to the top. No team knows Maryland better – and can compete better – than the Tar Heels. The next closest competitor is Syracuse, facing Maryland 10 times.
15 @ Elon
March 26 vs. Boston College
North Carolina opens its ACC slate against Virginia on March 12, but its game against Boston College begins the end-of-the-year stretch of six straight conference games. In 2015, the Tar Heels fell to the Eagles in overtime for its only ACC loss during the regular season. Can they avoid the slipup in 2016?
For the first time in three years, the entire offensive unit returned and practiced together during the preseason. "This fall was actually the first fall we had a lot of our experienced starters playing on the same field together. It was kind of weird," Levy said. "We have been battling injuries. Our offense has been different in 2013, 2014 and 2015."
The Tar Heels are in pursuit of its second NCAA title, but they aren’t the only team in contention for the crown. Can they truly reload its defense and remain successful?
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