Rebuilding North Carolina's men's lacrosse program has been a gradual process for second-year coach Joe Breschi, but another major step will be taken if the No. 3 Tar Heels can defeat No. 5 Maryland on Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The Tar Heels surprised some teams last year when they advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before losing, 12-11, to Duke, but they haven't snuck up on anybody this year. It's no longer a question whether Breschi can rebuild North Carolina, but when the Tar Heels will arrive.
"That's a good question," said Breschi, a 1986 graduate of Loyola High. "I don't know when that will happen, but this is a huge game, a big opportunity for us to take the next step. We're both 1-0 in the conference. It is an ACC game. It is a rivalry, and we're at home in front of what we believe will be a big crowd. This is enormous for our program."
It's enormous because the Tar Heels (8-0) are on the brink. Breschi brought in a good recruiting class for this season, and the next crop of freshmen might be the best in the country. One more class might give North Carolina the depth to seriously challenge for a national championship.
Right now, the Tar Heels are making noise, but they still might be a year or two away from a national title.
"I went there because he [Breschi] had the athletic director behind him, and he played at North Carolina, so he was going to be there for a while," said Boys' Latin senior midfielder R.G. Keenan, perhaps the best faceoff specialist in the country. "He understood the tradition at the school and what it took to win. He has already changed the attitude."
It wasn't as if North Carolina was a loser before Breschi arrived. It's just that his approach was in contrast to predecessor John Haus', who was always serious. Breschi is more outgoing, friendlier and has a strong relationship with his players.
Combined with Breschi's Baltimore roots, the beauty of North Carolina's campus and its location in the South, it's not hard for him to sign top players such as Keenan, St. Mary's midfielder Mark McNeil, and Gilman attackmen Duncan Hutchins and Marcus Holman.
"Our assistant coaches do a good job of pinning their ears back and going on the attack for recruits," Breschi said. "Nothing comes easy, but we are selling Chapel Hill, if you know what I mean."
Another draw for the Tar Heels is their style of play. North Carolina likes to run and gun, and the Tar Heels press out on defense, playing lacrosse as it should be played. According to Maryland coach Dave Cottle, the Tar Heels have first-team All-Americans at most of the major positions: attackman Billy Bitter, midfielder Sean DeLaney and defenseman Ryan Flanagan.
But Cottle and Breschi agree that the game might be won at midfield. Maryland can go nine deep while North Carolina has one good unit, and the rest are suspect.
"Last year, they were as deep as any team we saw," Cottle said. "Last year, the first group played about 55 to 65 percent with the second group playing the remaining time. This year, it's about 85 to 15 percent. But overall, from top to bottom, it's a good team. They got good shooters, passers and are very unselfish. They will go out and play the ball."
Breschi, though, has just as much respect for Maryland. In fact, this might be the Terps' best team under Cottle, who is in his ninth season at Maryland. Not only can Maryland go three units deep in the midfield, but the Terps also have an unselfish bunch of players in attackmen Grant Catalino, Travis Reed and Ryan Young and midfielders Will Yeatman, Jake Bernhardt and Michael Shakespeare.
Goalie Brian Phipps consistently comes up with crucial saves at big moments, and the Terps have long-pole midfielder Brian Farrell, who is the key to their transition game.
"Phipps, Young and Farrell are their emotional leaders, and Dave Cottle does a really good job of getting Catalino in the right spots for shooting," Breschi said. "They are a very deep team, and we have to treat Farrell almost like a short-pole [midfielder] because of what he does in the transition game.
"We have to focus on their man-up offense and win ground balls," Breschi said.
"I expect a physical, grind-it-out battle. Both teams will be emotionally charged and play with enormous passion. In other words, it's a typical Maryland-Carolina game."
Not exactly. The Terps (6-0) have been consistently in the title hunt under Cottle. The Tar Heels are still trying to get to that level under Breschi.
"We're a work in progress," Breschi said. "The system has been in place for a year, and the kids are now familiar with the morning practices and the regular routines. We have told them that if you put forth the effort every year, we should be in position to win the ACC title. There is no guarantee, but at least we got a shot.
"We've definitely made progress from year one to year two, and that's because we've changed the culture, and there are expectations," he said. "Now, with Maryland, we have another tremendous opportunity. I'm not trying to hype the game. Maryland versus North Carolina hypes itself."