Can North Carolina Return to Championship Weekend in 2022?

(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)

Coming out of a timeout following a North Carolina caused turnover late in the contest, Chris Gray’s shot went wide, and with just :31 seconds left on the clock, it appeared the Tar Heels has just seen their last possession of the season. However, 10 seconds later William Perry picked the Virginia pass out of the sky to give the Tar Heels one more chance at forcing overtime and extending their season – just as they had done a week earlier against Rutgers to advance to Championship Weekend.

The Tar Heels wouldn’t be as lucky in the NCAA semifinals as they were in the quarterfinals a week prior, being shut down completely in the final seconds by the Virginia defense. The Cavaliers would win the game 13-12 to advance to the national title game, where they took down Maryland to claim their second consecutive title.

North Carolina’s impressive season came to an end on Memorial Day Weekend, where they had taken home the title just five years earlier. But while things didn’t go the Tar Heels’ way in 2021, them grabbing a shar of the ACC title and reaching the semifinals sent a loud message to the college lacrosse world. A message that the Tar Heels are back.

Following that national title in 2016, North Carolina went 8-8, finished last in the ACC, and fell to UAlbany in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They went 7-7 and 8-7 in the 2018 and 2019, missing the NCAA Tournament both years. It marked the first time since 2005 and 2006 that the Tar Heels had missed the big dance in back-to-back seasons.

But when Chris Gray arrived on campus during the fall of 2019 following two stellar seasons at Boston U. the tone changed in Chapel Hill. The arrival of one of college lacrosse’s most elite attackmen, coupled with the amount of elite talent coming of age led to a 7-0 start in 2020 before the season was cut short. The shortened season was just a preview of what this North Carolina team was capable of. And in 2021, the college lacrosse world got the full picture.

Now heading into the 2022 season, Joe Breschi will be looking to lead his squad back to Championship Weekend with hopes of bringing that trophy back to Chapel Hill. And as things are right now, despite the personnel losses they do have, the Tar Heels’ roster looks to be just one of a few across the college lacrosse landscape capable of doing just that.

The crux of North Carolina’s success last season wasn’t necessarily their offense or even their defense. It was how they played in the middle of the field – particularly in the riding game. The Tar Heels had one of the most relentless rides in the nation last season, giving nearly every opponent trouble moving the ball up the field. North Carolina’s ride was a huge factor in the NCAA Quarterfinals as Justin Anderson chased down Rutgers’ Joey Kamish to stop any potential of a Scarlet Knights’ fast-break goal late in regulation, and Chris Gray rode all the way back to force a turnover in the defensive zone in overtime. That turnover led to the game-winning possession for the Tar Heels.

While the Tar Heels were a great riding team last season, they were also great at defending against it. North Carolina ended the season ranked 7th nationally in clearing percentage (.893%). With their top SSDM in Connor Maher (65GB/10CT) back for his senior seasons, as well as junior LSM Matt Wright (47G/13CT) and numerous others on both ends, the Tar Heels should have the capability of finding the same success in the middle of the field as they did last season, to say the least. They have also picked up Hofstra grad transfer SSDM Dominic Pryor, who could also be a big impact player in that realm this spring.

In addition to their success in between the boxes in the riding and clearing game, the Tar Heels were also able to earn a lot of possessions through their success at the faceoff dot with the Zac Tucci leading the way and Andrew Tyeryar proving to be a more-than-solid backup. Tucci went 146-for-257 (.568%) and ended the season ranked 22nd nationally in faceoff percentage. Tyeryar went 110-for-212 (.519%) and ranked 32nd in DI in faceoff percentage.

North Carolina housed the nation’s top offense last season, ending the year ranked first in scoring offense as they averaged 16.31 goals per game. That offense was led by senior attackman Chris Gray, who will be back for a fifth season of college lacrosse in 2022. The Tewaaraton finalist and ACC Offensive Player of The Year tallied 91 points off 49 goals and 42 assists.

Gray will headline a Tar Heel offense in 2022 that sees just two additional full-time starters return from a year ago in senior attackmen Nicky Solomon (23G/20A) and Jacob Kelly (20G/11A). Brian Cameron (16G/1A), who started seven of the first nine contests in 2021 and was a full-time starter in 2020, and Cole Herbert (4G/4A), who started the final four games of the season at midfield following Tanner Cook’s injury.

Herbert, as well as junior Lance Tillman (10G/2A) and senior Henry Schertzinger (8G/1A), should see increased playing time and production this coming spring after being some of the top offensive reserves this Tar Heels’ squad leaned on last season.

The biggest question for this offense heading into the 2022 season is what the midfield will look like. With Gray, Solomon, and Kelly back the Tar Heels return their entire starting attack. But at the midfield position, Herbert is the only returner with starting experience from last season, as they lose William Perry, Tanner Cook, and Justin Anderson. The three veterans combined for 112 points last season as one of the most productive first midfielders in the nation.

On the defensive end, the Tar Heels do see similar turnover at the top with close defensemen Will Bowen, who will be taking his talents to Georgetown as a grad transfer, and Cam Macri graduating. However, the overall turnover isn’t as deep as goalie Collin Krieg and defensemen Sean Morris, who is back for a fifth season, both return in 2022, in addition to Maher and Wright at the SSDM and LSM position.

Krieg is coming off a stellar freshman campaign in which he made 176 saves with a .530% save percentage. Morris was a first-year starter in 2021 and scooped up 16 ground balls while also causing eight turnovers. The pair return as leaders at close defense following a season in which the Tar Heels had a top-25 scoring defense (allowing 10.62 goals per game) and 17th best man-down unit in the nation, holding their opponents to just a 29% success rate on such opportunities.

While the loss of Bowen is big, and the most notable on either end, the fact that Krieg is back as well as a good majority of contributors at close and up top could lead to North Carolina having a similar performance on the back end. Of course they will need to fill those two holes left by the loss of Bowen and Macri. Senior Evan Egan (3GB/4CT) is likely to be one of the guys in the mix to fill one of those holes. He played in nine contests and started the first four of the season.

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