Looking to build upon a nine-win season a year ago–its best in the last decade–the University of Vermont men’s lacrosse team had an important decision looming after former head coach Ryan Curtis stepped down.
In response, the school simply turned its eyes to the most recent national champions.
UNC defensive coordinator Chris Feifs–an assistant for seven years under Joe Breschi–accepted the Catamounts’ offer on Wednesday to become the seventh head coach in the program’s history.
Vermont’s Director of Athletics, Jeff Schulman, made the announcement.
“During the search process, Chris impressed us with his passion for teaching and strong commitment to the academic, personal and athletic wellbeing of his student-athletes,” Schulman said.
“His experience recruiting and coaching a national championship team at North Carolina certainly speaks to his ability to identify, attract and develop elite student-athletes who are capable of succeeding at the highest levels on and off the lacrosse field.”
The Tar Heels qualified for the NCAA Tournament each year Feifs–who was also in charge of teaching faceoff specialists–was on the staff.
Under Feifs’ tutelage, former faceoff man R.G. Keenan became the first UNC midfielder to be named a First Team All-American since 1996.
A native of Durham, the coach left the state of North Carolina to play his college lacrosse at Maryland from 2004-2007 before spending a year with the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse.
He then spent two years as an assistant at Virginia Military Insitute before joining Breschi’s staff in Chapel Hill.
At Vermont, Feifs will inherit a team that returns four of its top five scorers from last season–as they appear primed to make a splash in the America East Conference in 2017.
“I am honored for the opportunity to join the University of Vermont as the head men’s lacrosse coach,” Feifs said. “UVM is truly a special place with its unique combination of academic excellence, athletic achievement and picturesque surroundings.
“I look forward to joining Burlington’s supportive and vibrant community to build a winning tradition on and off the field.”http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/unc-mens-lacrosse-assistant-chris-feifs-takes-head-job-at-vermont
UNC is very well represented on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Academic lacrosse teams.
Twelve players – six from each the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams – were named to the academic all-conference teams on Monday.
Juniors Stephen Kelly, Austin Pifani, Shane Simpson and Michael Tagliaferri joined seniors Patrick Kelly and Jake Matthai on the team.
Meanwhile, Kelly Devlin, Mallory Frysinger, Marie McCool, Aly Messinger, Megan Ward and Caylee Waters were named academic all-conference for the women’s side.
Both the men’s and women’s UNC lacrosse teams won the national championships over Maryland earlier this year.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/12-tar-heels-named-academic-all-acc
It’s now official.
Not only did this year’s edition of the UNC men’s lacrosse team become the first to win the national championship with six losses–it also did it without a single first-team All-American.
The Tar Heels did, however, get six players named to either the second, third or honorable mention teams.
Senior defensive midfielder Jake Matthai–the 6-foot-6 captain with the long blonde mane–led the way with his selection as a second-team All-American.
UNC’s other captain–junior defenseman Austin Pifani–was chosen to the third team for his work in 2016, which included 14 forced turnovers.
After switching from a midfielder to an attacking role in this, his senior season, Steve Pontrello highlighted the Tar Heels’ four honorable mention selections.
Pontrello was the team’s leading scorer in 2016 with a career-high 49 goals and 21 assists.
He was joined on the honorable mention team by fellow senior Patrick Kelly, as well as a pair of juniors–Michael Tagliaferri and faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly.
Tagliaferri and Patrick Kelly each scored 27 goals this season–tying for fourth on the team.
They also both came up with critical plays in the NCAA Championship Game last Monday–with Kelly scoring the goal that sent the game to overtime and Tagliaferri assisting on Chris Cloutier’s game-winner.
Rounding out the All-Americans, Stephen Kelly was quite possibly the most important player in the Tar Heels’ stunning run to the title.
His faceoff excellence–winning an incredible 57 percent of his 434 draws this season–allowed UNC to routinely gain control of its games by going on big runs while its opponents struggled to get the ball back.
Kelly’s 249 faceoff wins in 2016 finished second in school history behind only Shane Walterhoefer’s 269 back in 2009.
Despite having no first-teamers, UNC used its lack of star power to bond together as a group–with each player fulfilling his role perfectly down the stretch.
This list is just another example.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/six-unc-mens-lacrosse-players-named-all-americans
Success breeds success.
Within the UNC athletic program, it’s a motto that promotes good-spirited competition between each of the different Tar Heel teams.
Nowhere was it more evident than in Philadelphia this past weekend, when the school’s men’s and women’s lacrosse teams each defeated Maryland on back-to-back days to win national championships.
Following the women’s title victory on Sunday, head coach Jenny Levy gave her team the option to fly home that night or stay an extra day to watch the men’s championship game on Monday. Even though staying meant having to ride home on a bus, they all agreed to do it.
Because both teams were in the same hotel, it also gave them a night to celebrate together.
“There was an atrium in the hotel, and I could hear all this craziness downstairs,” Levy said in a joint press conference with men’s head coach Joe Breschi on Tuesday. “And I’m like ‘Aww, our parents are going nuts.’
“Then I look down and I’m like, ‘Oh my god it’s the men’s team. That’s awesome,’” she continued. “I just thought it was a really cool moment for the players in both programs.”
The men’s team took care of business the next morning, winning an overtime thriller that ended a 25-year title drought.
Not long after Chris Cloutier’s game-winning goal found the back of the net, Levy’s team wanted to share the moment with head coach Joe Breschi’s squad on the field.
Security wouldn’t allow it, however, so the men simply marched over to the stands and climbed up there.
“It’s almost like—in a fun way—it was the kids competing against each other,” Breschi said. “Not against each other, but with each other.
“To be like ‘We’re gonna get you, we’re gonna get you,’ and then to beat the same team is pretty magical,” he added. “And to celebrate with Jenny’s husband, Dan, and the ’91 team on the same day–it’s just so special for all of us.”
Plenty of other Tar Heel coaches showed their support for the lacrosse teams over the weekend as well.
Levy said she got advice on Saturday for her championship pregame speech from legendary women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance.
Head football coach Larry Fedora was also in Philadelphia, while Roy Williams—still recovering from knee surgery–offered good luck through text messages.
“It’s a healthy competitiveness between our athletes,” Levy said. “But they like to see each other achieve. And they want people to win national championships here.
That comes from the top down, all of the coaches respecting the work that each of us does with our programs.”
As much as the competition within the university helps motivate the different teams, nothing motivates quite like a familiar foe. An ACC mainstay before leaving for the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland has always been a difficult opponent for the Tar Heels–no matter the sport.
But the lacrosse rivalry is at another level.
After eliminating both UNC’s men and women in the 2015 NCAA Tournaments, the Terrapins were served a cold dish of revenge this year.
Unable to contain her excitement, Levy shared her secret recipe.
“It was nice to beat the Terps twice,” she said. “And put a little salt on the red state”
Breschi, on the other hand, just wants to soak it all in after the incredibly emotional ride he and his team have had this season.
He took a deep breath, then said with emphasis: “I am gonna savor this moment for a looooooooooooooooong time.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/healthy-competition-motivated-uncs-lacrosse-teams-to-national-titles
With his hat turned backwards, and a smile stretching from ear to ear, UNC head men’s lacrosse coach finally got a chance to say what he’s been waiting to say since taking the job back in 2009.
As he hugged the TV interviewer, Breschi couldn’t hold it back.
“We just won the National Championship, baby!”
In a thrilling game that saw each team rally from multiple goal deficits, sophomore attacker Chris Cloutier delivered the knockout blow in overtime–giving the Tar Heels a 14-13 upset over top-ranked Maryland at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
UNC (12-6) picks up its fifth national title and first since 1991–on the same day that 1991 team was honored at halftime for their 25th anniversary.
It also marks the second day in a row the Tar Heels have won a lacrosse championship at the expense of a No. 1 ranked Maryland team.
The Terrapin men (17-3) saw their 16-game win streak come to a stunning halt on Monday, much like their women’s team watched a 26-game streak fall by the wayside on Sunday.
Cloutier’s goal–his fifth of the game–was the final moment of a thrilling comeback that saw UNC rally from two goals down in the final four minutes of regulation just to tie the game.
A questionable penalty on Luke Goldstock with just seconds to play forced the Tar Heels to then hold off the Terrapins’ man-advantage opportunity in overtime.
Maryland looked to have found the game-winner during that tense first minute of the extra period, but a a miraculous save by goalie Brian Balkam–who stopped 13 shots in the game–somehow kept UNC alive.
The rest, as they say, is history.
UNC earned a man-advantage of its own soon after Balkam’s save, which led to the goal heard all throughout Chapel Hill.
After scoring nine goals in the semifinals on Saturday, Cloutier again led the team in the biggest game of his career–finishing the Final Four with 14 goals.
The Ontario native also set a new NCAA Tournament record with 19 goals in UNC’s four games.
Goldstock had a hat trick for the Tar Heels in the first half, before eventually finishing with four goals.
Brian Cannon and Steve Pontrello each chipped in two goals apiece, while Patrick Kelly scored the goal that eventually sent the game to overtime.
The Terrapins were led by Matt Rambo’s three goal, three assist performance–as well as four goals from Connor Kelly.
Their effort helped Maryland fight back from an early 4-0 deficit to go ahead 8-7 at halftime.
Also key was the faceoff battle, as UNC won three of the first four faceoffs as it built the lead–before losing 10 of the next 13 while the Terrapins mounted their comeback.
During one stretch spanning the second and third quarters, the Tar Heels went over 17 minutes without scoring because they simply couldn’t get the quality possession time they had become accustomed to during the tournament run.
Breschi, in an attempt to gain some momentum, benched his faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly midway through the third quarter in favor of freshman Charles Kelly.
The move didn’t end up making much of a difference, leading to Stephen Kelly’s return during the crucial fourth quarter run.
Despite playing from behind for most of the final 15 minutes, UNC never lost focus–finding a counter for every punch Maryland threw until it was able to finally tie the game for good.
Goldstock’s late penalty, however, which came for retaliating against a push from a Terrapin defender, looked–for a moment–like it would surely doom the Tar Heels.
However, a resilient defense–and a save for the ages from Balkam–killed the penalty and delivered UNC the momentum it needed to finish the job.
It was almost like re-watching the same movie or Vine over and over again.
Chris Cloutier just kept scoring and scoring and…well you get the point.
When it was all said and done, the UNC sophomore attacker ended up with a Final Four record nine goals–as the Tar Heels hammered the No. 7 Loyola Greyhounds 18-13 in Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Semifinal at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.
It was the latest outstanding performance from a UNC squad (11-6) that clearly is peaking at the right time.
The reward is a shot for the school’s first National Championship in the sport since 1991, and a chance to be the first six-loss team to ever win an NCAA Championship.
Loyola (14-4) fought valiantly to keep the final score respectable, but never once had control of the game in its first loss since March 12.
Steve Pontrello, Luke Goldstock and Timmy Kelly each added two goals for UNC, while Brian Cannon, Patrick Kelly and William McBride chipped in one apiece.
Six of Cloutier’s goals came during a first half where the Tar Heels outscored their opponents 14-5–putting the game away before it ever had a chance to get started.
UNC used its athletic advantage to break down Loyola’s man-to-man defense during the early portion of the first quarter–simply running free of their matchups, then finding Cloutier in front of the net ready to dump it in.
“He’s big, strong, he’s tough, he can turn the corner and he’s getting to the middle of the field–which is big,” UNC head coach Joe Breschi said, when asked what makes Cloutier so good. “And his teammates are sharing the ball.”
A clearly shaken Loyola team–trailing 9-2 after just 15 minutes–swapped out their talented goalie Jacob Stover for backup Grant Limone, while also falling back into a more conservative zone defense.
The result was more goals for the relentless Tar Heel attack, which was enabled by junior Stephen Kelly’s 14 face-off wins in 21 attempts.
At one point early in the second quarter, UNC scored three goals in 15 seconds–two by Cloutier–thanks to a pair of fastbreaks started by Kelly’s faceoff work.
Down by nine goals at the break, Loyola could have easily let up.
As the Tar Heels became more patient in their approach, however, the Greyhounds turned up their intensity level on both sides of the ball.
After Cloutier’s eighth goal made UNC’s lead 16-8 late in the third quarter, Loyola held the Tar Heels scoreless over the next 15 minutes.
Not until the score was 16-12–and just over five minutes left on the clock–did Cloutier get back on the board.
The Greyhounds put one more in the net after that, but Pontrello countered to give UNC the final goal.
Just as his tears defined the team’s emotional victory over Notre Dame last weekend, Breschi couldn’t help but flash a big grin once it was all over in this one.
“We’ve got one more game,” Breschi said. “We’re playing Monday.”
UNC awaits the winner between No. 1 Maryland and No. 5 Brown.
The National Championship is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday.
When UNC men’s lacrosse head coach Joe Breschi broke down into tears following last weekend’s win over Notre Dame, it capped off what had been an extremely emotional week for the Tar Heels.
Their task this week in Philadelphia, though, is to try and set those emotions aside as they prepare to face the No. 7 Loyola Greyhounds in the Final Four on Saturday.
A self-proclaimed “big relationship guy,” Breschi and his team shared a few special moments when UNC had to travel to Columbus, Ohio—where he once coached at Ohio State—for its quarterfinal matchup against the Fighting Irish.
Not only were the Tar Heels seeking their first Final Four spot in over two decades, their coach was returning to the state where—in 2004–his 3-year-old son, Michael, was struck and killed by an SUV outside his preschool.
Add all that together, and it’s obvious why Breschi–considered a father figure by many of his players–had a hard time holding his emotions back during the week.
“I think at every team meeting over the weekend, I cried” Breschi said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Just by talking about different moments throughout, visiting the cemetery and so forth.
“When Patrick Kelly said he wanted to speak to the team before the game at our team meal, I said absolutely.”
One of UNC’s most consistent all-around players in the midfield and on the attack, Kelly has put together a fine senior season—tallying 25 goals and eight assists.
But what he said that morning perhaps meant more to Breschi and company than anything he’s done on the field this season.
“Patrick said, ‘You know, none of us would be here if it wasn’t for Coach and him bringing us here to North Carolina.’” Breschi told reporters.
Kelly continued by saying “This is a special place for him and his family. Having Michael at the cemetery 20 minutes from where we’re playing—let’s dedicate [the game] to Michael and Coach’s family.”
Following the speech, Breschi continued doing what he had done all week.
“I cried…again, just trying to chest bump and pump everybody up,” he said.
Using Kelly’s words as motivation, the Tar Heels upset Notre Dame—the preseason No. 1 team—leading to that unforgettable sideline moment for Breschi.
Despite all that, there’s still more to be done if the team wants to reach its ultimate goal of a National Championship.
Loyola is 14-3 this year, and hasn’t lost in over two months. The Greyhounds also possess some of the nation’s top young stars—which has been a key focus of UNC’s scouting this week.
“We know how talented they are,” Breschi said. “They’re so well-coached. Very well-organized on offense and then on defense obviously they have a freshman goalie who’s very talented.
“And Pat Spencer is not only one of the best freshmen in the country, but one of the best players in the country,” he continued. “We’ve got our hands full across the board, so it’s been all Loyola since we met on Monday.”
The freshman goalie Breschi mentioned, Jacob Stover, has saved 59 percent of the shots he’s faced this year for the Greyhounds. UNC goalie Brian Balkam, a solid player in his own right, has a save percentage of just 50 percent.
Then there’s Pat Spencer, the wunderkind. He leads Loyola in scoring with 36 goals and 47 assists—more than twice as many points as any of his teammates.
It’s talented players like Stover and Spencer that give the Tar Heels no choice but to put last week’s emotions in the rearview mirror.
Listening to UNC’s senior captain, Jake Matthai, it’s clear the team is locked in on the task ahead—with their lifelong dream sitting just two wins away.
“In the offseason, it’s not really the offseason—you’re working so hard toward this goal, to be the best team in the country,” Matthai said. “So to know that we have another shot–another opportunity—this weekend is such a special feeling.
“And I’ll say it again–the work is not over,” he continued. “We have two games to reach that goal, and a great team in front of us on Saturday.
“We know it’ll take everything we have to beat this team.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/after-emotional-week-unc-mens-lacrosse-turns-focus-to-loyola
In recent years, the UNC men’s lacrosse team has largely been defined both by its stars and its failure to advance past the NCAA Quarterfinals.
This year, however, has given birth to a whole new narrative—as the Tar Heels have relied on a team mentality to bring the school to its first Final Four since 1993.
Players like Joey Sankey, Marcus Holman and the Bitter brothers—both Billy and Jimmy—often took center stage on previous editions of head coach Joe Breschi’s teams.
Because those guys were consistently racking up incredible stats while also being named All-Americans, the pressure of ending the program’s long Final Four drought became suffocating at times.
One of UNC’s current captains, junior defenseman Austin Pifani, spoke about that feeling at Tuesday’s press conference.
“Playing with guys like Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey—they had so much pressure on them to make it to the Final Four, to be great, to be Tewaaraton winners [as the nation’s best player], and to take the program to the next level,” Pifani said. “Now this year, the pressure’s off.”
In 2015, Sankey and the younger Bitter led UNC to a 12-1 start—only for the Tar Heels to finish 13-4 with yet another loss in the NCAA quarters, a 14-7 drubbing at the hands of Maryland. Still though, the team finished the year averaging over 14 goals per game—with 150 combined points from Sankey and Bitter.
This year’s Tar Heels—currently 10-6 after a 3-3 start–have netted about two goals less per outing, with attacker Steve Pontrello the only player with more than 30 goals.
When asked the biggest difference between the two squads, Breschi laughed and said coaching was the main improvement–before noting that everyone in this current group knows their roles and plays within the team structure.
“Sometimes it’s not pretty, sometimes it is–like last weekend,” Breschi said of his team’s style. “But I think the biggest thing is that they continue to stick together and want to win for one another.
“We don’t have individuals on this team,” the coach continued. “We don’t have superstars. We have a lot of really good players that care about each other.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of UNC’s team success is junior midfielder Stephen Kelly.
Despite having just three goals and four assists all season, Kelly has worked wonders for the Tar Heels as their face-off man. Typically thought of as a 50-50 situation, Kelly has won a staggering 222 of his 376 face-offs this year, or 59 percent—an improvement of 10 percentage points over last season’s team rate.
UNC uses Kelly’s ability to spark their up-tempo attack, gaining more possession time and more open space for the wing players out on the sides, while goal scorers like Pontrello and sophomore Chris Cloutier can charge hard to the area around the net.
“He’s just so creative in how he faces off,” Breschi said about Kelly. “Obviously he loves to bring it to himself, but he’s a game-changer. Both games against Notre Dame he allowed us to go on those runs because he’s consistent at the face-off X.
“Some say the face-off is overrated,” Breschi added. “Not me. I mean, you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.”
Although the team has now fully embraced playing this way, that wasn’t always the case.
A team meeting was needed after suffering early-season losses to both Hofstra and UMass, which aren’t exactly national lacrosse powers.
Everything was put out on the table that day, with the players quickly realizing that neither Joey Sankey nor Jimmy Bitter was about to walk through the door—it was up to them to come together in order to achieve their goals.
Fast forward to this week, and those meetings have changed quite a bit in tone.
“On Monday we had a lift and a five-minute meeting that said, ‘OK, there’s four teams left and you’re one of ‘em,’” Breschi said, pausing for emphasis. “What’s in the past is in the past.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/lacking-star-power-unc-mens-lacrosse-bonded-as-a-team-to-reach-final-four
Joe Breschi returned to Chapel Hill after the 2008 season to coach the UNC men’s lacrosse. As a player, Breschi was one of the best in program history. He was a two-time All-American and he played on two national teams.
Prior to taking the job as head coach of the UNC men’s lacrosse team, Breschi coached the Ohio State Buckeyes for 11 seasons.
While at Ohio State, Joe Brechi and his wife Julie started their family. The couple had five children while living in Ohio: Michael; Samantha; Abigail; Lucy; and Emily.
Michael Breschi was tragically killed in 2004 after being struck by an SUV in the parking lot of his preschool. He was 3-years-old.
Prior to Sunday’s quarterfinal victory over Notre Dame, senior captain Patrick Kelly dedicated the game to the coach’s son. While speaking to ESPN after the game, Joe Breschi broke down:
“Patrick Kelly spoke at breakfast this morning and dedicated the game to my son. I’m so proud of them. Proud of all of them.”
The UNC Athletics Department shared Breschi’s remarks from ESPN on YouTube.
NCAA Lacrosse shared the powerful raw video on Twitter.
— NCAA Lacrosse (@NCAA_Lax) May 22, 2016
The UNC men’s lacrosse team will play in their first Final Four since 1993 on Saturday, May 28.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/unc-mens-lacrosse-dedicates-game-to-joe-breschis-son
Improbably, Carolina lacrosse is finally back.
The UNC men’s lacrosse team, which 25 years ago was a regular in the Final Four and won four national championships, broke a frustrating drought by upsetting Notre Dame for the second time this season and made it back to the Final Four for the first time in 23 years.
And it was a most improbable return after what coach Joe Breschi called being stuck in the quarterfinals four times in the last seven years while other ACC schools gained the dominance the Tar Heels once held. The amazing run to the national semifinals this weekend in Philadelphia began with the seven unanswered goals against Notre Dame in Chapel Hill on Senior Day, when the Heels rallied to stun the Irish 17-15 in Kenan Stadium and clinched a bid to the NCAA tourney.
The Irish stood between them and the elusive Final Four Sunday in the massive Ohio State football stadium, where Breschi had coached the Buckeyes for 11 seasons after playing for Carolina during the glory years under coach Willie Scroggs. This time, the stickmen jumped on Notre Dame from the outset, playing the first three quarters like the played the last period in Kenan four weekends ago.
Eight straight goals this time, by five different Tar Heels, gave Carolina such a commanding lead that even when the Irish closed with five unanswered goals they still were on the short end of a 13-9 score. Four goals by Steve Pontrello and a record-breaking day in goal by Brian Balkam with 14 saves proved the unranked team in blue was clearly better than the No. 3 team in gold.
This was not the same team that opened the season 3-3 with losses to Hofstra and Massachusetts. But while the casual Carolina sports fans gave up on the 2016 edition, the diehards stuck in there and witnessed an amazing turnaround over the last month. It began with the epic win over Notre Dame, continued into the NCAA Tournament on a day the Heels won and Duke lost and wound up with the long-sought trip to the last weekend of the season.
Finally, the Final Four.http://chapelboro.com/sports/chanskys-notebook-the-final-four-at-last