NORFOLK, Va. -- You can't call the Delaware Blue Hens underdogs in field hockey any longer.
Just call them national champions.
A late goal by national scoring leader Greta Nauck snapped a 2-2 tie and lifted Delaware to a 3-2 decision over North Carolina, which was played out at Old Dominion's L.R. Hill Sports Complex on a blustery Sunday afternoon.
Nauck came into the postgame news conference 30 minutes after the final horn cradling the game-winning ball as if it were a fine piece of crystal, rarely letting her eyes stray from its white crevices.
"My coach told me to keep it with me forever," she said through her soft German accent. "I'm going to put it in a special place in my room."
As time wound down on the clock, Blue Hens fans (including the two busloads who made the five-hour trek down the Eastern Shore) chanted, "We believe that we can win."
The team with the "Why not us?" attitude ended the season by bringing home its first national championship in the sport and only the second NCAA title in any sport for Delaware (women's lacrosse in 1983 is the other).
The Hens (23-2) spilled onto each other in front of the cage at the final horn in a symbolic scene for a field hockey celebration.
"We did it," the players exclaimed through hugs and tears. The Blue Hens' mascot strutted over from the stands, the school radio station went crazy and the band played the alma mater, while Michaela Scanlon lay flat on her back while teammates screamed "national champion" in her ear.
In contrast, the Tar Heels walked off arm in arm, wiping away quiet tears and disappearing into their locker room.
But the Blue Hens looked like they never wanted to leave the scene, with their handling of the trophy resembling the passing of the Stanley Cup. Kayla Devlin kissed it, Lisa Giezeman called for her father, "Papa, come for a pic," while Lauren Crudele nearly dropped it.
"That's how she plays," joked coach Rolf van de Kerkhof while holding the coveted prize that he promised to bring home to Delaware when he took over the program in 2011.
Back then, the Blue Hens finished with a losing record, including a 6-0 drubbing by the Tar Heels during the regular season when talk of an NCAA title would have been preposterous.
"You have to build," van de Kerkhof stressed. "We have grown now for four years. We have matured. And we have gotten better every year. The gap with the top teams four years ago ... has closed. I like to believe that maybe because of what we did today, Delaware is a force to be reckoned with and that we are a top team."
The Blue Hens looked like the better team in the first 35 minutes, getting an early goal from Nauck and a second from Meghan Winesett, who flicked it into an open cage after a sleek pass from Esmee Peet.
The Tar Heels were sharper in the second, keeping possession in their end of the field and gaining an early goal from ACC scoring leader Lauren Moyer. When Megan DuVernois evened the score in the 62nd minute, it appeared as if all the momentum had shifted back to the Tar Heels, but Delaware refused to wilt.
And North Carolina coach Karen Shelton admitted a costly error hurt the Tar Heels here.
Taylor Lister intercepted an ill-fated aerial shot by freshman Eef Andriessen. It set up an easy goal for Nauck, who tapped it in for a school-record 33rd of the season with just under six minutes left.
"One big mistake cost us a goal," Shelton said. "I love that kid. She was trying to make a play. A lot of mistakes go into a game like this. This particular one, it was a big one."
North Carolina pulled its goalie from there, but the Tar Heels earned no more significant chances -- stunning for a team that had outshot its opponent 16-5 and allowed just one corner to its seven.
This makes two glorious weekends of field hockey for the Blue Hens, who blanked Louisville, revived themselves from a 2-0 hole against top-seeded Duke and scored in the waning minutes in Friday's semifinal against Princeton to pit themselves against six-time champion North Carolina.
The formula? "De-ho," a term van de Kerkhof coined for Delaware hockey, which translates to an attacking style that doesn't deviate from an aggressive approach regardless of the opponent.
"We play to win," said van de Kerkhof, whose team won its 19th straight and has not lost since falling on Sept. 11 to Princeton. "No overtime -- although we do pretty well in those situations, too."
As for the Tar Heels (20-6), they go home empty-handed again, having advanced to five championship games in the past seven years; last winning it all in 2009. Since then, they've fallen to Princeton on this very same field, suffered two overtime losses to Maryland and now a loss to unseeded Delaware.
The Tar Heels were missing starter Kristy Bernatchez, who suffered concussion-like symptoms after being hit in the head with a ball on Friday. That moved Ashley Hoffman from midfield to defense.
Shelton, a five-time national coach of the year, said coping with this result will take some time for her and her players.
"Each year is different," said Shelton, whose team had something of a roller-coaster season. The Tar Heels started the season ranked No. 1, lost their first game, and didn't win an ACC title but defeated Stanford and Maryland on the road to reach the final four. On Friday, they handed UConn only its second loss of the season to reach their 17th title game.
"It was a fantastic year. I do think we had the ability to do it. We had our chances," Shelton said. "It hurts. I can't say that it doesn't. It hurts bad. I love the University of North Carolina, and I'm absolutely driven to bring distinction to the university. First is a lot different than second. I hate to say it -- and it shouldn't be that big of a difference -- but it sure is."
When two teams vie for an NCAA title, only one goes home a winner. On this day, it was Delaware.
"My husband had a dream last night we lost the game by the score of 3-2," Mary van de Kerkhof said after kissing her husband as he scooped up their sons in front of the dog pile at the final horn.
Except for that one, just about every dream came true for the Blue Hens and their fans this weekend.