Finally, North Carolina has its championship
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Sammy Jo Tracy learned lacrosse from her father. He gave her a stick and practiced with her until she felt the sport was as much a part of her as it had been for him, an All-American at Maryland. But when it came time to pick a college team, the Bedford, N.Y., player didn't opt for her father's alma mater. She picked North Carolina.
"It was my decision. I wanted to do my own thing."
Tracy said it was the absolute right decision Sunday, just moments after she was key in North Carolina's 13-12 triple-overtime win against Maryland for the national championship. The Terrapins, a team with 10 national titles and a 6-0 overtime record in the NCAA tournament, were undefeated coming into the title game. They had beaten the Tar Heels in the regular season and the ACC championship. It was hard to think of how the statistical deck could have been more stacked against the No. 3 Tar Heels in the final.
Tracy scored 31 seconds into the third overtime, and North Carolina rushed to celebrate before referees broke it up for the obligatory stick check. A minute later, the freshman's goal was ruled good, and the 18-3 Tar Heels jubilantly picked up where they left off. The NCAA wheeled the confetti cannon onto the Villanova Stadium turf, and coach Jenny Levy's children made snow angels in the colorful shreds.
For Tracy, there was something familiar and surreal about scoring the winning goal like that.
"A dream; it literally feels all like a dream," Tracy said. "To see that ball go in the back of the net was something I've dreamed about ever since my dad put a stick in my hand."
Levy has been coaching the North Carolina women's team for 18 seasons. So even as her Tar Heels won their first NCAA women's lacrosse championship, Levy tempered her enthusiasm by talking about the bigger goals she's had.
"I think, from the outside world, winning is how you're measured, and I understand that," Levy said, "but I think at Carolina we define success in a lot of other ways."
Kind of funny that it would take a national title to get out a message that winning isn't everything, but that's sports.
"I think this one will probably go down as one of the more exciting national championships in the history of our sport," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. She wanted this team, which she described as a particularly great one to be able to "add to the stack. But someone's gotta win and someone's gotta lose."
When Levy took over North Carolina's program in 1995, there were no full-time assistants, and she had five scholarships to give. North Carolina wasn't a recruiting hotbed, and there wasn't a huge grassroots lacrosse program at the youth and high school levels.
"We've battled every step of the way to get where we are today," Levy said.
And Sunday, that meant heading up a team that could weather change of momentum like a stormy sea. With three overtimes, there were a lot of pivotal moments.
At the end of the first half, Tar Heel Emily Garrity scrambled for a loose ball and tried to shoot it at the buzzer, hitting Maryland's Iliana Sanza directly in the face. After getting stitches at halftime, Sanza was back in the game to start the second half, but Garrity got a yellow card for dangerous propelling.
North Carolina had a 9-6 lead at the half, but playing down a man took a toll. After playing defense for the start of the half, Taylor Cummings scored her third goal of the game with 27:31 to play, Beth Glaros scored soon after and the Tar Heels' lead was cut to 9-8. Brooke Griffin needed just 13 more seconds to tie it 9-9.
Just like that, a 3-0 North Carolina lead to start the game had evaporated.
Katie Schwarzmann gave Maryland its first lead of the championship with 23:27 to play, a solo shot in front of the goal. Schwarzmann -- who won the prestigious Tewaaraton award as a junior and is a finalist for it again this season -- scored again for an 11-9 lead. North Carolina went on a 3-0 run, with the last two scored by Kara Cannizzaro for a 12-11 lead.
But Schwarzmann again came through, intercepting the ball behind the North Carolina goal and, with Maryland in possession, Alex Aust slammed it in to tie the game once again at 12 with 3:51 to play.
And that was where it stood until Tracy scored in the third overtime.
Now, North Carolina is finally in the strata near perennial powerhouses that show up at the Final Four every year; programs like Northwestern and Maryland. The Tar Heels might not be vying for a dynasty like the one that Northwestern recently held, but one title will suffice.
"It gives us one," tournament MVP Cannizzaro said.
"I think this is what our team is about," Garrity said. "We've been to the Final Four, but this is what puts our team over the hump. This shows that North Carolina will win and North Carolina does win."