New life in North Carolina program

Haus' rising Tar Heels test No. 1 Virginia tonight

April 19, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Outsiders enjoy poking fun at the Atlantic Coast Conference men's lacrosse tournament. A minority of ACC schools sponsor the sport, but at least it's more than a three-team chase now that North Carolina has emerged from a bleak stretch.

Virginia won the NCAA title in 1999. Duke and Maryland have been regulars in the big tournament, but North Carolina hasn't won an NCAA game since 1993.

There was a five-season stretch in which North Carolina went 1-16 against its conference brethren, but the Tar Heels beat Virginia last season and Duke last month and the horizon could hold blue skies again in Chapel Hill.

No. 7 North Carolina (7-3) meets top-ranked Virginia in the ACC semifinals at Duke tonight at 6, followed by the 11th-ranked Blue Devils against No. 6 Maryland.

The championship will be Sunday (3 p.m., Comcast Sports Net). The Cavaliers are the only one in the bunch that appear a lock for the NCAA tournament, and the Tar Heels freely verbalize what this weekend means.

"Virginia is a little better than the other three teams, but we're glad we got the fourth seed," said North Carolina's Steve Will, a junior attackman out of Dulaney.

"We're glad to be playing the No. 1 team in the country. It gives us more spark to be energized. When we do beat them, and we will, we'll go on to the ACC final, where there will be that much more at stake."

You won't hear that kind of bold talk from coach John Haus, who left the massive expectations at Johns Hopkins after two seasons - both in the final four - and returned to rebuild his alma mater.

With Haus on defense, the Tar Heels took the first two of the three NCAA championships they claimed from 1981 to 1991. Dave Klarmann was the head coach of the last North Carolina team that won it all, but the Tar Heels slipped toward the end of his tenure, and Haus replaced him after the 2000 season.

The freshman class is the only one Haus recruited, and he immediately reconnected the talent pipeline that once ran from Baltimore to Chapel Hill.

Will grew up a North Carolina fan and still raves about the Wade brothers, All-America midfielders Ryan and Jason.

Will has combined with his brother, Bryant, for 26 goals and 16 assists, and though Bryant was probably going to follow him south anyway, Haus had to persuade Jed Prossner, The Sun's Player of the Year at McDonogh School in 2001, to aid the turnaround. With 15 goals and 12 assists, Prossner is the Tar Heels' top point-getter.

Some of the faceoffs are handled by Severna Park's Paul Burnett, and the freshman class includes goalie Paul Spellman, who allows 8.18 goals a game.

Spellman came out of St. Paul's and spent a year at Loyola College before transferring to North Carolina. The incoming class includes Scott Falatach, the St. Mary's attackman who is only the second player to make the Bay State all-star team two years, and Sean Link of St. Paul's.

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said North Carolina's talent has "improved dramatically," but Haus said that depth doesn't pay its biggest dividends on game day.

"We've got a great senior class," Haus said. "Just because some of those guys aren't playing doesn't mean they're not making a contribution. Last year, we weren't real competitive in practice.

"Now, the third attackman has to worry about the fourth and fifth attackmen taking away his playing time. Our third defenseman faces the same issue. The one thing that I'll say about this team, whatever happens on the weekend, they come back Monday and go hard."

After last season's upset of Virginia, North Carolina let down and lost to UMBC. Now, it's established more of an even keel, a necessity in a close-to-the-vest season in which seven of the Tar Heels' 10 games were decided by one or two goals. North Carolina's six-overtime win over Navy is believed to be the longest college game ever.

NOTES: Duke beat Maryland in last season's ACC title game, and the Blue Devils held off the Terps in double overtime in Durham on March 8. ... The tournament began in 1989, and Maryland's only title came in 1998. ... Former Terps coach Dick Edell will supply the analysis on Comcast's cable coverage of Sunday's championship game. ... Virginia will be without defenseman Mark Koontz. The preseason All-American, who had been playing with a hand cast to protect a healing thumb, sustained a knee injury last week against Duke.

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