Tar Heels earn Final Four ticket

Carolina's field hockey team has advanced to its 23rd Final Four in program history. The team will play Wake Forest in the NCAA semifinal game on Friday.

The Carolina field hockey team celebrates.
Karen Shelton's Tar Heels are off to the final four for the 10th year in a row. (Photo by GoHeels.com)

North Carolina is headed to the NCAA field hockey Final Four for the 10th year in a row and the 23rd time in program history following a 5-2 win over No. 8 Michigan Sunday afternoon at Karen Shelton Stadium. Senior Ashley Hoffman scored twice and assisted on another goal as the top-ranked Tar Heels improved to 21-0 on the year and earned another game in what has been a stellar season.

“I’m so excited for our seniors and our team,” said coach Karen Shelton, at the helm for each of those final four trips. “My hat goes off so sincerely to the University of Michigan.  They fought and scratched and threw themselves into that game like I’ve never seen. It was everything we could do to hang on – I know the scoreline won’t reflect how hard they played and how well they worked together. They intercepted a thousand balls today, it seemed like.

“I’m just so proud of our Tar Heels for hanging on and scoring when they had the opportunity. We sustained a lot of pressure, we absorbed it, and when we got a chance, we scored. And that relieved pressure for us. Congratulations to Michigan. It was a great game, and I’m so proud of our kids.”

The Tar Heels capped their first home season at Shelton Stadium the same way they kicked it off: with a win over Michigan. The teams met back on Aug. 25 for the first game at Carolina’s new facility and the Tar Heels’ first win of the year, 5-1.

Fast forward two and a half months and it was Carolina vs. Michigan again, closing out the home schedule in temperatures roughly 30 degrees colder. Carolina, which is making its record-35th appearance in the NCAA Championship field, opened tournament play Friday with a rain-soaked, first-round win over William & Mary, 4-0. Sunday was sunny but cool, just below 50 degrees as the Tar Heels and Wolverines took the field.

Senior Malin Evert put Carolina up for good on the first penalty corner of the day, in the eighth minute of play. Evert took a pass from Hoffman and blasted a shot past UM keeper Anna Spieker for a 1-0 lead.

In the 20th minute, the Tar Heels scored again on another penalty corner. This time Hoffman had the goal, assisted by freshman Erin Matson and junior Yentl Leemans to make it 2-0 Carolina.

Michigan answered in the 27th minute, with Kathryn Peterson scoring from the top of the circle to draw the Wolverines within a goal on UM’s only shot of the half.

Carolina drew three penalty corners in a row to end the first half and finally scored on one. Again it was Hoffman, assisted by Matson and Leemans, to make it 3-1 at halftime.

The offensive momentum shifted Michigan’s way in the second half. After totaling 14 shots in the first 35 minutes, Carolina played 20 minutes into the second period before coming up with even one. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they then mustered two. In the 57th minute of play, junior Feline Guenther received the ball from junior Catherine Hayden and turned for a  close-range shot right at Spieker. That one was saved, but Guenther grabbed the rebound and chipped the ball over the keeper’s outstretched leg and into the cage to put UNC up 4-2.

As UNC struggled to get its offense going, Michigan’s exploded.  After just one shot and no corners in the first half, UM had 12 shots and seven corners in the second. In the 59th minute, the Wolverines scored on a penalty corner, with Sofia Southam on the goal and Emma Way the assist.

That made it 4-2 with just over 10 minutes to play for a ticket to the final four. Michigan continued to pressure and with 5:16 remaining in the game pulled Spieker in favor of an additional field player. The Tar Heels were the ones who capitalized, though, picking up a late goal from junior Megan  DuVernois, who took a long pass into the circle from sophomore Meredith Sholder and finished into the empty cage.

“Thankfully our defense bent a little but we didn’t crack,” Shelton said. “We had a couple of goal-line saves – Cassie  Sumfest on the corner, and Amanda Hendry had a couple of big-time saves. It could have very easily gone the other way.”

But with the win in-hand, Carolina is off to Louisville this week and will meet Wake Forest there in the first NCAA semifinal game, on Friday at 1 p.m. It will be the third meeting of the season for the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons, who also met in the ACC Championship final. Maryland and Princeton face off in the second semifinal Friday at 3:45 p.m. and the winners meet Sunday for the NCAA championship.

“I’ve always felt like the game to get you to the final four is the hardest one to win,” Shelton said. “For us this year, not being in the top four would have been a disappointment. So we’re really happy to get there, so we can celebrate with three other good teams and then one team will be left standing, the team that plays the best.”