Heels see red over blue '97 Carolina seeks return to upper echelon after 6-7 mark, NCAA miss

March 06, 1998|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Take a peek at a North Carolina men's lacrosse practice and watch the tempers flare.

Players fighting. Teammates pummeling one another to the ground. Helmet-to-helmet confrontations.

But don't get the Tar Heels wrong, these are positive signs.

Unlike during last year's disastrous 6-7 season, the North Carolina players aren't taking adversity lightly. Case in point: There was a fight in every practice the week after its upset loss to Butler.

"It was the most intense week of practice I've ever seen," said sophomore defenseman Todd Maher, a Loyola High graduate. "Everyone was on edge and there was a lot of tension and emotion. I don't want to down-talk our seniors last year, but I remember after one loss, it didn't seem like they cared and it killed me.

"They didn't bring the same enthusiasm we have this year."

The No. 12 Tar Heels (1-1) have something more than emotions to prove when they play at No. 5 Loyola (1-0) tomorrow. North Carolina needs to show results.

Players have absorbed nonstop criticism from friends and even parents. In fact, Maher almost returned to Chapel Hill early to sidestep the constant questioning.

And North Carolina coach Dave Klarmann has heard the rumblings from the alumni.

That's what happens when a lacrosse powerhouse suffers its first losing season in 30 years and sits out its first NCAA tournament in 18 years, ending the second-longest streak in lacrosse.

"We're not a bad team, we just have bad luck sometimes," said sophomore attackman Chase Martin, a former Gilman standout.

"I think about it and maybe if we don't hit the pipe here or there, it's a different season."

The Tar Heels suffered four one-goal losses last March, including three in a three-week stretch, and never recovered.

"The collapses start to get into your mind-set," Maher said. "We'd be up four or five goals and let the other team creep back into it. Every time we'd get a lead, I know it was in the back of my mind."

The Tar Heels should have been determined to shake off last year's bitter defeats. Instead, they suffered their first loss to a Midwestern school in their 49-year history, falling to Butler, 13-12, in the season opener.

"We told our guys that Butler was good, they just didn't believe us," Klarmann said. "Now we've become a fan of Butler. We want them to win and show people how good they are."

North Carolina has since rebounded, dismantling Navy, 17-7, on Saturday.

Yet alumni and fans in this area point to last year's 0-3 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference after winning eight of the past nine league titles and sometimes cringe at Klarmann's on-the-field tirades.

They see Maher and Martin, the only two players from Baltimore private schools on Carolina's roster, and watch the once prominent pipeline divert north to Princeton and dry up south of Virginia.

And there's that four-year stretch of not advancing to the Final Four -- their longest drought in nearly two decades.

"There's always going to be expectations of us going to the playoffs," Klarmann said. "There's always alumni looking for us to get back to the Final Four. All we can to do is play the best we can.

"We will continue to play a tough schedule and not back down from that. We will schedule games, not wins."

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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