Super Serpe a force for UNC defense

May. 16, 2014 @ 08:52 PM

With 195 career goals, more than any Tar Heel in history, North Carolina senior Abbey Friend hasn’t had much trouble blowing past defenders on the lacrosse field. One exception is when Friend is matched up against senior Sloane Serpe in practice.

“She’s super quick, like any good defender has to be, but at the end of the day she just has this intensity and will to stop you no matter what and the get the ball back,” Friend said.

“I hate going up against her because not only will she put pressure on you, but she’ll also make a play. I think that’s what’s really cool – she’ll stop you but then she’ll check you and get the ball back and run it down and get an assist. She’s the whole package for us on defense.”

In UNC’s first NCAA Tournament game last Sunday, Serpe shut down Georgetown leading scorer Kelyn Freedman, who came in with 37 goals but didn’t record a point in the Tar Heels' 10-8 win. Next up for Serpe and No. 3 UNC will be No. 6 Virginia, which comes to Fetzer Field today for an NCAA Tournament quarterfinal (1 p.m., ESPN3.com) The Tar Heels have lost five players to ACL tears, including all-America midfielder Brittney Coppa and ACC co-freshman of the year Sydney Holman. Sammy Jo Tracy – who scored the winning goal in the national title game against Maryland last year – has also missed the entire season with a foot injury.

Still, the Tar Heels (15-4) will be making their fifth NCAA semifinal appearance in six seasons if they get past the Cavaliers (11-8), in part due to the efforts of Serpe, who leads the team with 37 ground balls – the next-closest player has 23 – and has scored five goals on seven shots.

UNC coach Jenny Levy said that her four-year starter and three-time all-ACC selection is the best defender in the country.

“She’s in on ground balls, she’s in on draw controls,” Levy said. “You can put her against anyone in the country, whether they play high or low, she can handle it. She can transition. There’s not one thing on the field she hasn’t done for us this year, and considering the nature of how this year’s unfolded for us, we couldn’t be where we are without her.”

Serpe said she’s always been defensive-minded – the North Caldwell, N.J. native was a hockey defender growing up and was much better at defense than at offense on her high school basketball team.

Serpe was only a preferred walk-on when she arrived at UNC, but started on defense alongside three seniors in her first year and she's started every game since.

Defending in women’s lacrosse can be a frustrating pursuit. Rules are set up to benefit the offense and fouls committed close to the net lead to free-position shots, which UNC has converted into goals 60 percent of the time. Like every other sport, most major awards go to offensive players.

Still, Serpe said she doesn't mind the challenges of her position, and she gets satisfaction from seeing UNC's defense help the team win.

“You need to make stops to make the offense happen,” Serpe said. “We fuel their fire. We’re not going to get many accolades but it’s more about the overall team success.”

NOTES – The Tar Heels have won 15 straight NCAA Tournament home games and nine straight games against Virginia. ... UNC has eliminated the Cavs from the tournament four times since 2008, including 13-9 in last year’s quarterfinals. ... Friend has 62 goals this season, tying the UNC single-season record set by Kellie Thompson in 2002....Duke also plays in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, facing top-ranked Maryland in College Park, Md., today. The Blue Devils (11-7) are in the national quarterfinals for the 10th consecutive year. Duke played Maryland in the regular season, losing 19-10 at Koskinen Stadium on March 1.

Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.