ACC LAX preview: North Carolina

North Carolina lacrosse head coach Joe Breschi and company are returning all but three players that suited up for the Tar Heels last season. Depth, as you can imagine, shouldn't be a problem. The head coach talked with CuseNation.com inside.

North Carolina is coming off arguably one of its best seasons in recent memory. The Tar Heels were on the cusp of stuffing its faces with Philly cheesesteaks and playing for the hardware in May until a Denver squad decided to crash its party in quarterfinal play of the NCAA tournament.

History, to put it mildly, has not been kind to this program. North Carolina hasn't made it to the big stage, aka Championship Weekend, since1993. Yes, that wasn't a typo -- 20 long years. The good news, though, if you want to call it that, is the Tar Heels have made the tournament every year since 2007.

New additions like Syracuse and Notre Dame will look to throw a wrench into an already stacked ACC Conference that is, by far, the creme de la creme of lacrosse.

For Breschi, the trip up North to the Carrier Dome will be the first since his days at Brown as an assistant. He remembers all too well the challenges that this iconic athletic facility can posses.

"I think it's terrific," Breschi said. "I think we are all fortunate from an ACC standpoint to have Syracuse in the mix. What a great addition. Certainly, from a strength of schedule standpoint -- it's fantastic for all the teams involved -- but I think most importantly, from a UNC-Syracuse standpoint -- it will be a great rivalry renewed and an opportunity to go up to Syracuse and play in one of the historic facilities of lacrosse. When I was at UNC we played up there and it was just a phenomenal experience. The support that they get up there is just second-to-none."

Lets take a look and see what North Carolina is working with:

Defense:North Carolina's growth last season was well noted in this department. In all, the Tar Heels lose only close defender Kieran McDonald on the defensive end. McDonald was a player that sniffed out ground balls out on the field and was a menace when it came to pestering its opposition.

However, one should not be deterred as the Heels' shortstick crew consisting of senior Ryan Creighton (11 goals) and redshirt senior Greg McBride (17 ground balls, seven caused turnovers) are back to anchor a position that is heavily dependent on. Redshirt junior Duncan Hutchins and junior Mark McNeill will be in rotation, too.

North Carolina returns two starters on close defense in senior Jordan Smith (seven ground balls, 14 caused turnovers) and sophomore Evan Connell (25 ground balls and 15 caused turnovers).

In my interview with Breschi, he noted that roughly five longsticks will get the chance to contribute on close defense. Two of those guys, Breschi points out, are freshmen Austin Pifani and Jack Lambert. Junior Ryan Kilpatrick, a mainstay on defense, will play longstick middie as well as be an option on the wings come face face-off time.

Goalie(s): Sophomore Kieran Burke will enter as the frontrunner in goal for the Tar Heels. The true freshmen started all 17 games a year ago and saw his way to a 54 percent save percentage.

"You really can't teach experience just going through the rigors of a full season like he did last year," Breschi said. "It was quite special. He did a terrific job of getting better every week."

Burke, like most freshmen athletes entering the collegiate scene, endured peaks and valleys early during its 3-3 start, however, according to Breschi, he started to play with consistency and confidence as time went on.

"Our strength of schedule --when you play in the likes of the ACC and some teams that are tough outside of the conference -- there's nothing to do but gain confidence," Breschi said.

"We had a pretty young defense around him, too, and I think that was part of the slow start," Breschi said. "Last year, they started to develop and gain confidence with themselves and the others around them. With Kieran it's leadership and command of the defense. That's what we have asked him moving into year two."

Heading into his sixth year at the helm of North Carolina, Breschi points out that he hasn't seen a goalie with that kind of consistency since arriving on Chapel Hill.

"He has the best save percentage since I've been here of any other goalies we've had," Breschi said. "I think coach Holman has done a wonderful job in preparing and getting him better."

Burke isn't one of those goalies that's going to make your jaw drop outside of the cage. He is described by Breschi as a stopper, a netminder who is known for beautiful outlet passes and quick hands for making stops.

Offense:

Midfield: In college lacrosse, two solid midfield lines are the norm. A third and fourth midfield line is a rarity. North Carolina's depth, to put it simply, makes my head hurt. Breschi and company have been courting elite talent to Chapel Hill since arriving from Ohio State in 2008 and everything seems to be coming full circle.

"I feel like this year," Breschi said, "for the first time, we have that depth where there isn't a major drop off. The midfield lines, I think, are three deep. We do have a fourth which is very good, too. I think if we do have some injuries, because it is a long season and you don't know what's going to happen, we will have some guys that can fill in and have an impact and not just be fillers. This is our deepest position and most experienced."

North Carolina ranked No. 4 in the country last season in terms of scoring offense, averaging 13.35 goals per game and No. 5 in assists (7.53). I expect them to be tops again in the country when it comes to a production standpoint.

Everyone will be returning with the exception of Davey Emala. Expect sophomore Steve Pontrello (12 goals) -- although he has played attack for a lot of the fall-- junior Chad Tutton, sophomore Jake Matthai and redshirt freshman Michael Tagliaferri to all be in the mix for that coveted first midfield line.

Attack: North Carolina's lone void on the attack was the loss of Marcus Holman. The attackman was the team's leading scorer last year, accounting for a balanced stat sheet of 37 goals, 43 assists and 24 ground balls. The good news, though, is juniors Joey Sankey (36 goals, 20 assists) and Jimmy Bitter (32 goals, 20 assists), the squad's second and third leading scorers, are back and more potent than ever.

"Replacing Marcus is certainly not going to be an easy feat," Breschi said. "He was a great leader, I think, more so than anything coming from the offensive end." Sankey will more than likely anchor the offense from behind the cage, however, there were times early last year, as Breschi notes, that the duo (plus Holman) knew that they were the starting attackmen, but were still in the process of "finding their role.

"They eventually figured out how to feed off one another," Breschi said. "And that's what Sankey and Bitter are very good at doing."

With Bitter out all of fall rehabbing an injury (don't worry, he will be back to full strength come season), the attack rotation consisted of Sankey and sophomores Pontrello, Spencer Parks (nine goals) and Pat Kelly (six goals).

"We've played a lot of different guys," Breschi said about the attack. "We've actually moved Steve Pontrello down there for a little part of the fall just to get him comfortable down there. He is on our first-line midfield. He played really fast and strong and averaged -- I think -- nine shots in our scrimmage and in a couple inter-squad scrimmages as well. He is getting his opportunities."

Moving forward, it's obviously these two will be looked upon not just for putting points on the board, but their ability to lead and communicate as well.

"Coming from these guys, I would say the same thing, it's the leadership qualities, the command of the offense and getting us in sets," Breschi said about the duo. "We're always going to push transition, we're always going to play fast, but we have to be organized in order to do that and that's where those guys come in. It will be a big part of our success."

Face-off: Two words: R.G. Keenan. The face-off monster enters his senior year up at Chapel Hill to instill fear into opposing teams once more. Keenan was one of the best in the nation when it came to his play at the dot. He returns from a meniscus tear that somewhat, believe it or not, hindered him last year in his play. Breschi said he is 100 percent healthy and "ready to attack it this year." Keenan was a staggering 53 percent from the X (198-of-374) last season.

Play at the X has, you guessed it, depth as well. Aside from Keenan, senior Frankie Kelly (24-of-50) returns as Keenan's primary backup, sophomore Brent Armstrong (seven-of-18) and freshman Stephen Kelly round out the four-man face-off rotation.

Breschi describes the freshman Stephen Kelly as "different", stating that he will "add a little more stability" to the position.

Armstrong is a big, strong, physical specimen who came in at the end of the last year.

Aside from taking face-offs, Armstrong, Stephen Kelly, and freshman Shane Simpson could also be used in the midfield as well as options.


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