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Former Gilman star Emala getting used to North Carolina, playing midfield

Gilman alum Davey Emala, who transferred from Georgetown to North Carolina, leads the Tar Heels in scoring with 10 points in three games this season.
Gilman alum Davey Emala, who transferred from Georgetown to North Carolina, leads the Tar Heels in scoring with 10 points in three games this season. (North Carolina athletics)

For two years in Washington, there was comfort in Davey Emala's life. It came to him as a student at Georgetown, and as a lacrosse player for the Hoyas.

On the Hilltop, he had friends and familiarity, a well-established past and near-certain future. Emala was what he'd wanted to be when he signed with the program out of Gilman in 2009: a starting attackman at Georgetown.

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Today, he's neither. The first of two ballyhooed playmakers to transfer to No. 5 North Carolina last summer, Emala has a new home in Chapel Hill and a new starting position in the Tar Heels' midfield. And ahead of his team's Saturday showdown at Navy, it's hard to say which makeover has been more rewarding for the Baltimore native.

"It's a situation where you're losing things and gaining some things," Emala said, "and I'm already focused on the things being gained from the experience."

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Still, when he sat down with his parents last summer, it was difficult to dismiss all that he could lose in Washington. He was a standout at Georgetown, his 48 points and 35 goals both team highs. He was two years into a college experience that had made his teammates like brothers. He was only an hour's drive from home.

He was also on a 7-7 Hoyas team that hadn't made the NCAA tournament since he joined it.

"At the end, my family and I thought that this would be a great place to spend the last two years of my college career," Emala said in a telephone interview from North Carolina.

He had company, too. About a month after Emala announced he was heading to the ACC, attackman Jack McBride, a former All-American at Princeton, announced he would use a fifth year of eligibility as a graduate student at North Carolina.

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Pretty soon, Tar Heels coach Joe Breschi had a glut of attacking talents in his locker room and no easy way of accomodating them all. Besides Emala and McBride, the Tar Heels were also returning All-American Nicky Galasso and regulars Joey Sankey, Marcus Holman and Pat Foster.

This was a conundrum Breschi didn't mind having — the kind of problem every college coach in the country envied Breschi waking up in a cold sweat over. So on Day 1 of North Carolina's fall season, the fourth-year coach gathered the Tar Heels' offensive players in a meeting room and told them that the traditional attackman label, as they'd come to know it, was no more. There were too many attackers — or, perhaps more accurately, there were too many talented attackers — for some not to learn how to play midfield.

Emala included.

"It's definitely different, but it's also something he's been practicing," Breschi said. "It did take a little bit of getting used to."

Added Dave Emala, a former Johns Hopkins baseball star and Davey's father: "I think he had some things to learn and relearn about the midfield position, and certainly about playing at that level."

Emala's short time in Chapel Hill, to be sure, has had its share of what-am-I-doing moments. Making an alley dodge one practice, the junior found out shooting on the run was a lot harder than his midfield partners made it look. As he retreated back to defense in another, he realized he'd better revisit the stay-low, slide-your-feet principles of his middle-school basketball days or risk ridicule.

Off the field, he shuffled his way through an unfamiliar, sprawling North Carolina campus and wondered just how he'd fit in at a school he'd joined midway through his college life.

"Even though I knew a few people already here already, you're still going into a brand-new situation that you can't really grasp how big the change is going to be until you get here," he said.

Not even a month into the unbeaten Tar Heels' season, Emala looks like he's always belonged. On a team that can't seem to stop scoring — North Carolina has scored 52 goals in three wins so far — he is tops in points (10) and goals (seven).

After finding a new comfort level in Chapel Hill with help from Holman, his former Gilman teammate and current roommate, it's clear he's also started to find a zone on the field.

"He had to find his way around campus for the first month of the school year," Dave Emala said. "But the kid's pretty resilient, and it didn't take too long."

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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