(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)
The lacrosse world descends upon Hartford, Conn., this weekend for the greatest stage in the sport: Championship Weekend. On the DI side, only four teams remain standing and bye nightfall on Monday, only one will call themselves champions to end, perhaps, the toughest and most challenging lacrosse season ever.
No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels will take on the No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers in the first semifinals contest on Saturday afternoon.
How Did They Get There?
Virginia dominated Georgetown 14-3 in their quarterfinal matchup to punch their ticket to Championship Weekend. The Cavaliers beat Bryant 13-11 in the first round.
North Carolina defeated Rutgers 12-11 in overtime in the quarterfinals and beat Monmouth 16-4 in the first round.
All-time, these two ACC rivals have met 80 times with Virginia leading the series 52-28. The two have faced each other twice this season with North Carolina taking the first contest 16-13 while Virginia won the second meeting 18-16.
Who Wins In The Middle of The Field?
Both of these teams pride themselves on their ability to ride hard and effectively. While Virginia was more a tad more successful in the riding game over the weekend in their contest against Georgetown, especially early on in the game, than North Carolina was against Rutgers, both teams have certainly continued to show their prowess in that category. Carolina is ranked 16 sports higher than Virginia in clearing percentage (89% opposed to 86%), but both are top 10 ground balls teams, and each sides has pretty good faceoff units that like to strike while the iron is hot.
After seeing each other twice already this season, the battle in between the boxes between these two ACC rivals should be intense. We’ve seen how efficient both of these teams have been in the middle of the field this season, and we’ve seen how they fared against each other twice this season. Now let’s do it a third time and see what each side throws at each other.
Most Intriguing Matchup
North Carolina Midfield vs The Virginia Defense
Chris Gray highlights and runs the North Carolina offense. That’s no secret. But the Tar Heel offense is far from a one-man show or unit show. The Carolina midfield has been more than solid all season, and has been particularly good and shown its depth over the past month or so. Against Rutgers, Justin Anderson netted a hat trick and William Perry dished out two assists. But also second line midfielder Connor McCarthy, who had missed the Monmouth game, had two goals, which includes the overtime game-winner. Additionally, there is a possibility that Tanner Cook will be fully back after only seeing limited action last week and missing their first round game.
Virginia has a solid defensive unit with Alex Rode anchoring things in cage while Cade Saustad Kyle Kology headline the back line and LSM Jared Conners, and SSDMs John Fox and Chris Merle roaming the middle of the field. However, the Cavaliers’ play off-ball has been a point of struggle for them, and in the past two meetings between these two the Tar Heels’ midfield has gotten their way for the most part. How this Virginia defense handles the Carolina midfield while also having account for Chris Gray and that attack unit will be one of the more intriguing aspects of this contest.
Players to Watch
Connor Shellenberger, Midfield – The redshirt freshman leads the Cavaliers in scoring with 67 points off 31 goals and 36 assists. He exploded for a career-high six goals to lead the way for Virginia during the quarterfinals.
Petey LaSalla, Faceoff – While LaSalla hasn’t been pretty inconsistent at times this season, he can strike when the iron is hot and has showed up in May before. The junior is coming off a 79% outing against Georgetown and has fared well in his previous battles with North Carolina’s two-headed monster of Andrew Tyeryear and Zac Tucci.
Alex Rode, Goalie – The 2019 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player is putting on a show in May, again. Rode had an 18-save outing against Bryant in the first round before making eight saves against Georgetown last weekend.
Chris Gray, Attack – A Tewaaraton finalist, Gray has been the face of the Tar Heels’ offense for the past two seasons. The attackman leads North Carolina in points with 86 off 46 goals and 40 assists. He had a six-point (4G/2A) outing against Monmouth before being relegated to a feeder against Rutgers, dishing out three assists in the quarterfinal bout.
Will Bowen, Defense – A likely Schmeisser favorite, Bowen has been the leader on the back end all season for the Tar Heels. The defenseman has recorded 35 ground balls and 28 caused turnovers while being an absolute force both on and off-ball this season.
Collin Krieg, Goalie – The freshman phenom has come onto the college lacrosse scene strong. Being able to hold his own against some of the best shooters in the nation as a freshman, Krieg has put together one of the most impressive seasons of any player. He comes into Saturday with a 54% save percentage on the season and coming off a 10-save performance against Rutgers, which followed a 15-save performance against Monmouth.