UNC celebrates first women's lacrosse championship

May. 28, 2013 @ 08:15 PM

In the final seconds of the longest NCAA women’s lacrosse national championship game in history, North Carolina coach Jenny Levy didn’t find it strange that a pair of freshman made the biggest plays.

“These guys have played lacrosse since they were little,” Levy said. “The excuse that we’re a young team wasn’t anything we’ll ever use.”

Finally, after nearly two decades of trying, UNC has no need for excuses anyway.

In sudden-death overtime late Sunday night at Villanova Stadium, freshman goalkeeper Megan Ward stopped a point-blank shot from Maryland’s Brooke Griffin.

UNC junior Brittney Coppa scooped up the ball and headed the other direction, looking for the elusive goal that would deliver the Tar Heels their first NCAA women’s lacrosse national championship.

Crossing midfield, Coppa spotted freshman Sammy Jo Tracy to her left. She tossed the ball to Tracy, who had a path toward the Maryland goal. And 31 seconds into the third overtime, after nearly 75 minutes of lacrosse, Tracy’s goal provided the winning margin in a 13-12 UNC win.

“A dream,” Tracy said. “It literally feels all like a dream. To see that ball go in the back of the net is something I’ve dreamed about since my dad first put a stick in my hand.”

The irony is that Tracy’s dad, Dan Tracy, was an all-American lacrosse player at Maryland.

Along those same lines, Ward is an Annapolis, Md., native who left her home state for college lacrosse.

But this wasn’t about revenge or exterior storylines, Levy said. She never reminded her team about its two losses to Maryland earlier in the season that allowed the Terrapins to win the ACC Tournament and reach the NCAA final unbeaten.

Instead, she wanted her players to focus on executing the plays needed to bring UNC (18-3) its first national championship in women’s lacrosse.

“It’s been a journey and it’s nice to be on the winning side of it in the end,” Levy said.

While rookies Tracy and Ward made those major contributions, UNC senior Kara Cannizzaro won tournament most outstanding player honors with incredible production.

Cannizzaro scored four goals and had two assists in the championship game. Her goals at 12:44 and 9:00 of the second half erased Maryland’s 11-10 lead and put UNC in front 12-11.

The Terrapins (22-1) tied the game with 3:51 to play on an Alex Aust goal. That would be the end of Maryland’s scoring as the game wound through two six-minute overtimes before beginning a third.

Ward made two saves in the first overtime to keep the game tied. In the second overtime, with sudden-death rules in play, Cannizzaro had two shots stopped by Maryland goalkeeper Kasey Howard.

Cannizzaro’s shot with one second left also sailed wide, sending the marathon game to an unprecedented third overtime.

With the players’ stamina running low, Levy called on Tracy for a key shift and was rewarded.

“There were times when we’ve had five or six freshmen on the field,” Levy said. “I just thought, hey, we’ve been through a fall season, we’ve been through a spring season. Nobody is young anymore. When you get on the field you have to play a role for us or else you are not going to be on the field.”

Levy also had a calmness about her team’s ability to make the big play.

“It was an amazing game to be a part of. After the second overtime, I just stepped back and trusted my kids to do what they do. They have worked so hard all year and I’m proud of what they did.”

Even as the game dragged on and the Tar Heels were so close to losing so many times, Cannizzaro never lost faith.

“I think that we just stayed composed and we had a belief in ourselves that we were going to get the ball and that we were going to score,” said Cannizzaro, who set UNC’s single-season record for points with 83. “We just believed that we were going to win.”

And win they did. Maryland coach Cathy Reese called the game the greatest in the history of the sport.

Few were ready to argue as late Sunday night turned into Monday morning in suburban Philadelphia.

As for the historic perspective for the Tar Heels, Levy, the only women’s lacrosse coach UNC has ever had, said the long-awaited title in her 18th season is all about the girls who delivered it.

“I don’t think it validates my career,” Levy said. “It validates hard work. If anything, it shows that with a little belief and a lot of hard work, anything can be possible.

“I don’t think I’m a better coach right now than I was a day ago. It just happens that I’ve got some really tough kids that we’ve worked hard with all season and had the courage to come through.”