(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)
Since winning the national title in 2016, the North Carolina Tar Heels haven’t exactly been the best or most consistent program in the ACC. They followed up that national championship season with an 8-8 2017 season that ended with a NCAA quarterfinal loss to UAlbany, and the next two seasons after that they went 7-7 and 8-7. The Tar Heels missed the NCAA Tournament in both 2018 and 2019.
But coming into the 2020 season things felt different in Chapel Hill. In addition to a lot of the young talent on both ends being much more experienced and battle tested, landing high-profile Boston U. transfer Chris Gray gave them a huge boost. In a sense, the Tar Heels literally went from an ACC bottom feeder, which isn’t particularly that bad, to a potential ACC and national title contender.
Judging by the amount of action we got in 2020, the hype around this Tar Heel squad was warranted. Before the season was cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak, North Carolina went 7-0, which included a win over a top-20 Denver squad on the road. The win broke a two-game losing streak against the Pioneers.
In addition to their success in the win column, the Tar Heels’ dominance was apparent in multiple facets of the game. They ranked 4th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 17.86 goals per game, and had the 17th-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing 10 goals per game.
Coming into 2021, much of the hype that surrounded this Tar Heel squad last spring remains. And that could very well mean that we will see the same or similar success coming out of Chapel Hill as we did during the shortened 2020 season.
Offensively, the Tar Heels are expected to featured a high flying offense just as they did last season. Senior Chris Gray (27G/21A) will highlight this Tar Heels offense and be leading the way once again. The Tar Heels will return two more full-time starters at attack in juniors Nicky Soloman (13G/16A) and Brian Cameron (10G/5A). Senior attackman Alex Trippi (10G/17A), who has been a standout offensive weapon throughout his college career, will also return and should make an impact as he traditionally has.
While a lot of the hype surrounding this offense is at the attack position, at rightfully so, their midfield unit looks to be much improved and deeper than it was a year ago. While they do lose Justin Anderson to graduation, Tanner Cook (20G/7A), who was their top weapon at midfield last season, will be returning for a fifth season and they add Princeton grad transfer Connor McCarthy. They also have a heap of reserves at the position that have the potential to step up and make an impact this coming spring. That in itself, along with greater chemistry for much of this offensive unit, could make this Tar Heel offense even more deadly in 2021 than they were last season.
On the back end many do have concerns about how good the Tar Heels can be, especially against elite competition. 2020 saw their defense take some strides in the right direction, but we only got to see them against one top-20 opponent. Nonetheless, this defense showed tremendous growth last season and Will Bowen was a huge part of that process. After having to take a medical redshirt as a freshman, Bowen came out strong last season and was the leaders of this unit. He ended the year with 16 ground balls and eight caused turnovers. With Bowen back as a redshirt sophomore in 2021, this Tar Heel defensive unit has serious potential.
In addition to Bowen, the Tar Heels will return Matt Wright (20GB/4CT), who was their top LSM as a freshman last season, and senior SSDM Parker Alexander (4G/4GB/2CT). The two were stellar last season and should continue their impressive play on the back end for this Tar Heels squad this upcoming spring.
Canton Johnson should get the starting nod in between the pipes as the starting goalie again this season. Taking over as the Tar Heels’ starter in the final six games during the 2019 season, he continued his impressive play last season as a sophomore. Johnson posted a 46% save percentage in their seven contests during the shortened season.
At the faceoff dot, the Tae Heels do have a weapon in junior Zac Tucci that should aide both the offense and defense. The Bedford, N.H., native has been the Tar Heels’ primary faceoff man since his freshman season and went 109-for-187 (58%) at the dot last season. He ranked 28th in the nation in faceoff percentage.
While there is a considerable amount of experienced talent on this North Carolina roster heading into the 2021 season, they also bring in a strong freshman class that features a few players that could make impacts early on in their careers. Boasting the No. 12 class in the 2020 cycle, according to Inside Lacrosse, the Tar Heels freshman class is highlighted by Calvert Hall, Md., midfielder Cole Herbert, who is ranked as the No. 2 players in the class by IL. In total, they bring in six players ranked in the Inside Lacrosse top 100 this class.