After nine years of narrow misses, undefeated North Carolina wins field hockey national title
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Finally.
North Carolina ended nine years of crushing final four defeats by wrapping up a perfect season with a 2-0 victory over Maryland in Sunday's NCAA field hockey national championship game at Trager Stadium.
"To finish a season undefeated after coming to the final four for three years and coming up empty, it feels absolutely incredible," said Tar Heels senior Morgan Goetz, clutching a replica of the winning trophy while DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" blared from the celebratory locker room behind her.
Since stepping off this same turf a year ago after falling in penalty strokes in the national semifinal to eventual champion UConn, all the Tar Heels (23-0) have done is win.
They blanked Princeton and beat Duke twice during the regular season. They rolled over Wake Forest in Friday's semifinal. And under sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures, the No. 1 overall seeds prevailed.
"We play on Sundays," senior Ashley Hoffman reminded her teammates before the game. "And we win on Sundays."
Yet nothing about North Carolina's seventh NCAA title seemed routine given the nine years of dispiriting finishes for the Tar Heels on the sport's biggest stage. These seniors were part of three of them -- including a stunner against unheralded Delaware two years ago.
"This is four years in the making," said Malin Evert, one of four senior starters on North Carolina's roster. "I feel like everything we've done got us to this point, even losing the last three years. Now that we've done it, this is the best feeling. The other years we came in sometimes too confident or not confident enough. This time, we were just right."
Coach Karen Shelton has been around for all of them, including five championship losses in the past nine seasons. In her 38th season at one of the nation's most elite programs, Shelton has led this program to seven NCAA titles but none since 2009. She has refused to play into the narrative that defines a team's success solely on winning its final game. Yet she was candid in her feelings about another title.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel pressure," she said. "I don't think the team felt that pressure because it's a new team, but I sure as hell felt it. ... To represent your institution at a final four is a great honor. But because we didn't win it and were here nine times and came up empty -- and we didn't really come up empty -- it's a story. I'm just glad that we didn't have to endure that same old broken-record ending."
North Carolina's first score was a testament to an unselfish style; four players touched the ball that Megan DuVernois tipped in 21 minutes into the first half. Freshman Erin Matson added another 10 minutes later, and the Tar Heels finished the half without allowing Maryland a shot.
The Terrapins (22-3), national finalists a year ago and eight-time champions, put together a relentless second half that featured five corners and nine shots but failed to score for the first time this season. Coach Missy Meharg pulled her keeper with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left, but the Terps couldn't find the back of the cage. Defender Hoffman manned an aggressive attack that clogged the circle for the Terps, and anything that eked through, goalie Amanda Hendry was there to save. She saved five.
"Yeah, it's pretty upsetting," Terps junior midfielder Madison Maguire said. "You work all year 'round and all spring just to get here. But I think that our performance in the second half really showed our heart and how we wanted to play for the seniors. Everyone wants to play for the seniors, but I think we just showed on the field that we wanted to win for them. It obviously didn't come out in our favor, but we got next year."
North Carolina junior Catherine Hayden remembers leaving last year's stadium and telling Hoffman she didn't want to lose another game. Funny how thing work out, she said. North Carolina finished its third unbeaten season; the others were in 1995 and 2007.
"At the end of the day to have a national championship and not lose a game makes it that much better," Hayden said. "We feel like we've completed something for us and the families who have been to all the games."
Her own parents were part of the traveling Tar Heels contingent of fans -- a familiar bunch that congregated 90 minutes before game time to welcome the team bus with cheers and the "Heels" chant. Their pitch grew louder when the Terrapins faithful, standing in a line on the top deck of a parking garage across the street, shouted another message: "Let's go, Maryland!"
Hoffman was the first to find Shelton at the final horn. Hayden and Feline Guenther embraced. Parental hugs soon gave way to selfies and videos capturing the moment years in the making.
Every Tar Heel wanted a turn with the heavy trophy that eluded this program for nearly a decade.
"Finally!" Brenda Hoffman said aloud, hugging daughter Ashley, whose season now includes recognition as the most outstanding player in the final four to go with ACC defender of the year.
With every national championship shirt passed out, another team huddle led to an unfamiliar refrain: "Repeat, repeat, repeat."
Shelton smiled, but didn't join in. She plans to enjoy this one for a while.