North Carolina men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi likes the underdog role, but the Tar Heels aren’t going to be in that position long.
North Carolina (6-0) has climbed to as high as No. 4 in various polls and has one of the most explosive offenses in the college game. The Tar Heels’ close defense is questionable yet improving, but they have enough offense to overwhelm teams until the defense can catch up.
They can’t hide any longer in the talented Atlantic Coast Conference behind Notre Dame, Virginia and No. 1 ranked Syracuse (5-0), which routed Johns Hopkins, 15-9, on Saturday. Visiting North Carolina beat the Blue Jays, 17-10, on Feb. 22, and then defeated host Denver, 15-13, nine days later.
“Syracuse is playing lights out; their midfield is ridiculous,” said Breschi, a 1986 graduate of Loyola Blakefield. “It’s still early, things are starting to unfold, but Syracuse is the cream of the crop right now. We’re just kind of the underdog, hanging out in the weeds. Nobody knows about us down south here.”
Sorry, that good old country boy theory played out in 2016, when an unseeded North Carolina team beat top-ranked Maryland, 14-13, in overtime to win its first national championship in 25 years. This isn’t to say that the Tar Heels are that good, but they have potential.
They have a transfer named Chris Gray, who is 5 feet 7 and weighs 170 pounds, but can dominate and control the pace of a game like few others. At Boston University last season, Gray, an attackman, was a dynamic feeder with 62 assists and 49 goals.
At North Carolina, Gray leads the Tar Heels with 23 goals and 17 assists. He has turned an offense once dominated by midfield play into a multi-dimensional group. Opponents know that when they face the Tar Heels, the top priority is to slow down Gray.
But when teams slide hard to Gray, he hands out assists. If they slouch off, he wins one-on-one battles. North Carolina has outscored the opposition 107-54.
Fellow attackman Nick Solomon has 10 goals and 14 assists while midfielders Tanner Cook (17, 7) and Justin Anderson (13, 6) have also benefitted from Gray’s play. More importantly, Gray has been even a bigger hit off the field with his teammates, which isn’t always the case when a new, high-profile transfer arrives.
“We knew he was a great distributor coming in, but the big thing is he is as big of a scorer as he was a distributor a year ago,” Breschi said. “We haven’t had that kind of juice behind the cage since 2016. We’ve had good feeders and decent dodgers, but he gives us a little bit of everything.
“The other thing that has been so important, more important than on the field, is the kind of person he is. He is very humble, very team-oriented, just a really good person and teammate. As good as he is as a player, he is even better as a person."
Defensively, the Tar Heels aren’t as dominant, and some of the players are starting to take offense to them being labelled the weak link of the team. The close defense has two virtually new starters in Patrick Lyons, who hasn’t played in three years, and Cam Macri, a converted long-stick midfielder.
North Carolina has an inexperienced goalie in sophomore Caton Johnson, who played in six games a year ago. Johnson has a save percentage of .479, which isn’t bad in today’s lacrosse.
“We have some guys like Patrick and Cam who are stepping up and playing,” Breschi said. “They are inexperienced but getting better every time out. What is the knock on Carolina? It’s inexperience on defense, but we’re gaining experience and learning through playing.
“Our goalie has been OK, but we haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s not above 50% [save rate], but not many goalies are anymore because lacrosse has become such an offensive game. Anything above 50% is a bonus, but that’s our goal and where we’d like for him to be.”
Coaches like to overuse the term, but the Tar Heels really are a work in progress. They are using six attackmen. They run nine midfielders, including a No. 1 group that includes all seniors.
They are solid at the face-off position, winning nearly 50%, which means North Carolina is going to have its chances on offense. The Tar Heels have scored on 16 of 21 extra-man opportunities.
“We are building depth at midfield, and that’s going to help us with seven games coming up in three weeks,” Breschi said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but based on the scores, we can be as good as anybody out there. “