When North Carolina women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Levy began the Tar Heels’ program in 1994, she gave herself four years until she won her first national championship. It took her 18 – and many, many close calls along the way – but she finally accomplished the pinnacle feat in May with a 13-12, triple-overtime win against Maryland in the title game.
It was a long time coming for the Tar Heel women’s lacrosse program, which has sustained excellence for the past decade but had previously been unable to get over the hump and take the sport’s crown. Levy led the Tar Heels to seven Final Fours – including three in the previous four years – before prevailing in the eighth trip.
Before this season began, nobody was expecting this Tar Heel team to be the one that pushed UNC over the top. Maryland, Syracuse and Florida each returned All-American talent at several positions, and the Tar Heels fielded a team that was talented but young and unproven. But, when push came to shove, the Tar Heels just kept winning. They powered through the first two games of the NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four once again. Once there, they silenced longtime nemesis Northwestern, 11-4, in the semifinal. That left Maryland, the team that handed UNC two of its three losses all season long.
The Tar Heels jumped out to an early advantage in the final before Maryland took a two-goal lead behind a 5-0 run in the second half. UNC answered that run with a spurt of its own, scoring three consecutive goals to reclaim the lead. The Terrapins tied the game with fewer than four minutes remaining, and the two sides headed to overtime. UNC stayed alive in the first two overtime periods behind a handful of huge saves from freshman goalkeeper Megan Ward. Then, just moments into the third overtime, another Ward save led to a transition opportunity for UNC. That’s when Sammy Jo Tracy was able to get into an open space and fire a shot past the Maryland goalkeeper to give the Tar Heels the national championship.
Levy credits the players on the current roster for having the chemistry and the “willingness to fight” for their belief that they deserved to win the title. But, she adds, she thinks the championship is primarily the end result of a diligent effort to build the Tar Heel program into a perennial championship contender.
“Once it’s all said and done, I definitely feel like this year’s championship was the result of many years of hard work and planning. I don’t think anything happens by accident. We’ve been very strategic,” Levy said. “I think the lesson here is that you’ve got to keep your head down; you’ve got to work to get better ... Nobody talked about North Carolina winning the championship this year, and we knew we wanted to do that, and we put in all the work.”
Finally claiming a title puts the UNC lacrosse team in a class of its peers who have previously won championships. Before the Final Four, Levy and the players talked about how they were inspired by the opportunity to join the rest of the athletic department at the championship table. Abbey Friend, who was second on UNC in points, said the Tar Heels’ hard work is “solidified and justified” now.
“We joked around that we can fit in now,” Friend said of joining the likes of the soccer, basketball, men’s lacrosse and field hockey teams that already had championships. “We’ve made it so far that people probably didn’t feel that way – people probably thought we had been a successful program. But, inside we knew we had been a little different, so it definitely means a lot.”
Levy, who said her system and philosophies feel validated now, shared Friend’s sentiment. She said she’s looked up to women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance and basketball coach Roy Williams throughout her career, and joining their arena is a crowning achievement.
At the middle of this team’s success was someone who Levy once pulled off the field during a scrimmage because she was having a meltdown.
Kara Cannizzaro, the team’s leading scorer who had four goals and two assists in the championship game, has come a long way. In a scrimmage the fall of her freshman season, she made a series of mistakes that led to a goal being scored on the Tar Heels. Always a competitor and always striving for perfection, Cannizzaro started to break down.
“We pulled her off the field because she’s visually melting down,” Levy recalled, saying the team openly jokes about it now. “I asked what was going on, and she was crying and was like, ‘I’m awful, oh my God.’ And, I was like ‘Listen, it’s the fall of your freshman year. It’s OK, that’s why we play these games.’ She was a disaster.”
Four years later, Cannizzaro left Chapel Hill an NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and Honda Award winner as the nation’s player of the year.
“I credit Kara. She worked really hard to get where she was this year, and it wasn’t by accident. She always put the time in to be the best that she could be. She cared a lot about being good,” Levy said. “To see a kid go from crying on the field in the fall to celebrating a national title in the last game of her senior year is really great, really rewarding.”
Friend said the difference in another Final Four loss and this year’s championship was the passion the Tar Heels had for the game. That, she said, was an element Cannizzaro brought to the field each day.
The title didn’t come in four years, but the 18-year journey created a gritty team that played its best game on the biggest stage. Outsiders no more, the Tar Heels can now boast about their own championship to the rest of the UNC athletic department.
“It took longer than we thought,” Levy said, “but I’ll take it.”