After Emotional Week, UNC Men’s Lacrosse Turns Focus to Loyola

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.

The love the Tar Heel players have for their coach--and for each other--has helped get them to Philadelphia for the Final Four. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

The love the Tar Heel players have for their coach–and for each other–has helped get them to Philadelphia for the Final Four. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

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.

Freshman Pat Spencer (right) has led Loyola on a winning streak that spans more than two months. (

Freshman Pat Spencer (right) has led Loyola on a winning streak that spans more than two months. (

“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.”

Lacking Star Power, UNC Men’s Lacrosse Bonded as a Team to Reach Final Four

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.

Luke Goldstock scored 50 goals last season for UNC--mostly off assists from Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter. This year, a switch in style has seen his goal total cut in half. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Luke Goldstock scored 50 goals last season for UNC–mostly off assists from Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter. This year, a switch in style has seen his goal total cut in half. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

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.

Stephen Kelly's excellence at face-offs and retrieving groundballs has made all the difference for the Tar Heels during their late season surge. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Stephen Kelly’s excellence at face-offs and retrieving groundballs has made all the difference for the Tar Heels during their late season surge. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

“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.”

UNC Men’s Lacrosse Dedicates Game to Joe Breschi’s Son

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.

 The UNC men’s lacrosse team will play in their first Final Four since 1993 on Saturday, May 28.

Chansky’s Notebook: The Final Four — At Last!

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.

Final Four Drought Over for UNC Men’s Lacrosse: Tar Heels Crush Notre Dame

Eight times since 1993 the UNC men’s lacrosse team reached the NCAA Quarterfinals, only to come up short on each occasion.

After starting 2016 with a 3-3 record–and minus some of its most talented players from last season–few would have expected this group of Tar Heels to do any different.

Two months later, here we are. The ninth time was the charm.

UNC is heading to the Final Four after Sunday’s 13-9 victory over the No. 3  Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the preseason national title favorite.

Steve Pontrello (0) scored four goals on Sunday to lead UNC's explosive attack against Notre Dame. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Steve Pontrello (0) scored four goals on Sunday to lead UNC’s explosive attack against Notre Dame. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Playing at the famed Ohio Stadium in Columbus–where head coach Joe Breschi once led the Ohio State Buckeyes–the Tar Heels (10-6) absolutely dominated the Fighting Irish (11-4) from start to finish in a game that was nowhere near as close as the final score suggests.

“There was no pressure on them,” Breschi said in his TV interview after the game. “We’ve just competed every week.

“We had a heart-to-heart after we were 3-3,” an emotional Breschi continued. “These guys…I love all of them.”

Senior attacker Steve Pontrello scored four goals in the second half for UNC, while Chris Cloutier–a sophomore from Ontario, Canada–got the team off to a flying start by tallying all three of his goals in the first half, including one incredible play where he scored with a nifty, behind-the-back shot.

Luke Goldstock and Michael Tagliaferri each added two goals apiece–with Patrick Kelly also scoring once–as the Tar Heels simply overwhelmed Notre Dame with their fast-paced offensive attack.


By pushing the ball downfield before their opponents had a chance to get set, UNC generated a number of high-percentage opportunities on net–which they consistently took advantage of.

Stephen Kelly's faceoff dominance allowed UNC to keep getting the ball in good scoring position. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Stephen Kelly’s faceoff dominance allowed UNC to keep getting the ball in good scoring position. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Notre Dame tied the game 2-2 just before the end of the first quarter, but the Tar Heels then reeled off a stunning 8-0 run over the next 29 minutes– a span that lasted nearly two full quarters.

With junior Stephen Kelly continually winning in the face-off circle after each UNC goal, it made it seem like the game was being played–for a little while, at least–under “make it, take it” rules.

Only once the outcome was no longer in doubt did the Fighting Irish start to make a run. Notre Dame had a 6-1 edge in fourth quarter scoring, and scored the final five goals of the game.

Not once, though, did UNC ever feel threatened.

The Tar Heels were content to just pass the ball around over the final 15 minutes, making sure there would be no funny business preventing them from the upset win.

Breschi teared up on the sidelines when the clock finally ran out, as the coach had finally achieved the goal of returning his alma mater–where he’s been the head man since leaving Ohio State in 2009–to Championship Weekend.

He was also back in the state where his 3-year-old son, Michael, was killed in 2004 after being struck by an SUV in a parking lot outside his preschool.

“Patrick Kelly spoke at breakfast this morning and dedicated the game to my son,” Breschi said, choking up on camera. “I’m just so proud of them. Go Heels.”


Up Next:

UNC returns to action Saturday May 28 in Philadelphia, where it will take on the winner of the game between Towson and Loyola (Md).

Game Notes:

  • The Tar Heels defeated Notre Dame 17-15 in first meeting between the teams in 2016 back on April 23–the final game of the regular season.
  • Pontrello’s four goals were scored consecutively, including one where he ran 30 yards backwards to dodge a double team before scoring on an open net.
  • Both the men’s and women’s Tar Heel lacrosse teams will be in Philly to compete for National Championships.




UNC Men’s Lacrosse Upsets Marquette, On to NCAA Quarterfinals

No seed, no problem for the UNC men’s lacrosse team on Saturday afternoon.

The Tar Heels, who were not given a national seed for the NCAA Tournament, traveled to Milwaukee and eliminated the No. 6 seed Marquette Golden Eagles 10-9 at Valley Field to advance to a familiar place–the national quarterfinals.

Despite being held scoreless over the final ten minutes, UNC (9-6) held off a late rally by Marquette to eke out its 24th appearance among the country’s final eight teams.

In just their fourth full season as a Division I program, the Golden Eagles finished the year at 9-5 and as champions of the Big East Conference.

UNC’s experience in tournament situations ultimately proved to be a bit too much for the upstarts.

UNC goalie Brian Balkam saw his defense hold strong in the final minute to preserve a win over Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

UNC goalie Brian Balkam saw his defense hold strong in the final minute to preserve a win over Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. (Jeffrey A. Camarati/ UNC Athletics)

Led by junior midfielder Michael Tagliaferri’s three goals and one assist, the Tar Heels showed a persistent offensive attack that continually kept Marquette on its toes–compiling 37 shots throughout the game.

Attackers Steve Pontrello and Chris Cloutier each scored a pair of goals for UNC, while midfielder Shane Simpson added one during the second quarter.

Cloutier’s second goal came in the fourth quarter with the Tar Heels on a man advantage, and gave UNC its biggest lead of the day–at 10-7.

But that moment ended up being the last time head coach Joe Breschi’s squad found the back of the net.

Marquette clawed back from the three-goal deficit over the final minutes, aided by a delay of game penalty on UNC with just under two minutes to play–a call that ultimately led to a goal by the Golden Eagles.

The Tar Heel defense tightened up however, and fought off Marquette’s final offensive push.

After a wayward shot found its way into the goal crease with about 20 seconds to play, UNC was able to gain possession and hold on until the clock hit triple zeroes.

Up Next:

The Tar Heels await the winner of No. 3 Notre Dame and Air Force for their quarterfinal matchup.

Although UNC has made it to the quarterfinals 24 times, and in four of the last seven years, the Tar Heels have not made it to the Final Four since 1993.

Game Notes:

  • It was the first ever NCAA Lacrosse Tournament game to ever be played in the state of Wisconsin.
  • Pontrello’s goal for UNC at the end of the first quarter (his first of the game) was his 40th of the season. It was also the 20th multi-goal game of his career.
  • UNC scored on two of its three man advantage opportunities.



UNC Men’s Lacrosse Heading to Marquette for NCAA Tourney

The UNC men’s lacrosse team received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and has a first-round matchup with Marquette this weekend.

The tournament field was announced late Sunday.

UNC won a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title before losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Tar Heels’ opponent, Marquette, won the Big East Conference Tournament for an automatic bid to the NCAA bracket.

UNC enters the tournament unseeded, while the Golden Eagles are the No. 6 seed after they knocked off defending national champ Denver on Saturday in the Big East Tournament final. Marquette is in just its fourth year as a varsity program.

This marks the 31st time the men’s lacrosse team has made the tournament field.

Saturday’s game between UNC and Marquette will be televised nationally on ESPNU beginning at 2:30.

UNC Women’s Lacrosse Remain No. 3, Men Fall to No. 13

A win in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament was not enough to move the North Carolina women’s lacrosse team up in the latest Inside Lacrosse rankings.

UNC still sits at No. 3, behind Maryland and Florida – which happen to be the only two teams that beat the Tar Heels during the regular season.

UNC has won 13 games in a row since the back-to-back losses to Florida and Maryland in late February, going undefeated through the conference regular season. UNC won the ACC Tournament on the strength of a pair of one-goal victories over Duke and Syracuse.

Syracuse is fifth in the new polls and the narrow loss to Carolina in the ACC semifinals actually vaulted Duke three spots in the rankings to No. 14.

Meanwhile, the UNC men’s lacrosse team fell three spots to No. 13 in the latest poll after losing to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

Carolina was the top seed in the tournament, after knocking off Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish were the top-ranked team in the country. Syracuse went on to defeat Duke in the conference title game.

Up next for both squads is the NCAA Tournament. The women’s team is automatically in the field after winning the conference title. The men will learn their fate on May 8 during the NCAA Tournament selection show.

UNC Men’s Lacrosse Falls to Syracuse in ACC Tournament

No. 1 seed North Carolina was knocked off in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinal on Friday night.

Fourth-seeded Syracuse led throughout the game, jumping out to a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

UNC pulled to within 6-4 at the half but could never close the gap further.

Syracuse got a 10-7 victory over UNC and will take on the winner of Duke and Notre Dame on Sunday.

5 From UNC Men’s Lacrosse on All-ACC Team

UNC men’s lacrosse placed five players on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team announced on Wednesday.

The five selections are senior short-stick defensive midfielder Jake Matthai, senior attackman Steve Pontrello, junior close defenseman Austin Pifani, junior face-off man Stephen Kelly and junior midfielder Michael Tagliaferri.

This is the first selection to an All-ACC team for each of the five Tar Heels.

The Tar Heels knocked off No. 1 Notre Dame in Kenan Stadium last weekend to win a share of the ACC regular season title. Carolina is the top seed heading into the ACC Tournament in Kennesaw, Georgia. UNC will face fourth-seeded Syracuse in a semifinal matchup at six o’clock Friday night.