For the sixth year in a row, the North Carolina field hockey team capped its Atlantic Coast Conference Championship experience with a celebration.
Friday afternoon on the blue turf at Duke’s Williams Field at Jack Katz Stadium, the top-ranked Tar Heels beat No. 5 Virginia 3-2 to run their record to 17-0 on the season and claim the 25th title in program history. Carolina led wire-to-wire and earned the conference’s automatic bid into the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the bracket for which will be announced on Sunday night.
The string of six titles in a row represents the second-longest streak in league history, trailing only Carolina’s nine straight from 1983 through 1991.
“I’m very proud of our Tar Heels, and I want to congratulate the University of Virginia for making it close at the end,” said Carolina coach Karen Shelton, at the helm for all 25 of the Tar Heel titles. “They’re really a well-coached team, they work hard and they’re never out of a game.”
Super-senior midfielder Meredith Sholder was named the tournament’s MVP. Including an injury redshirt season in 2018 and the extra year of COVID eligibility, she has been a member of six ACC Championship teams and has played in five title games. She was joined on the All-Tournament Team by senior Erin Matson (who won her fifth ACC title) and freshmen Ryleigh Heck and Sietske Brüning.
Sophomore Lisa Slinkert scored the goal that put Carolina ahead for good in the 10th minute of play. On UNC-Chapel Hill’s first penalty corner of the day, Matson’s initial shot was saved and Slinkert got the rebound as it came off the UVA keeper. She spun then sent a backhand into the cage for a 1-0 lead.
“Us being able to score first was really important because it allowed us to set the momentum and be able to tell each other ‘we’ve got this’ and stay composed and be confident in ourselves as a team,” Sholder said.
The Tar Heels made it 2-0 with another penalty corner goal just 34 seconds before halftime. Matson passed to Brüning, who took the initial shot. Heck deflected it in, reprising a similar goal from Wednesday’s 2-1 semifinal win over Syracuse.
Carolina didn’t give up a shot or a corner in the first half and allowed just one shot in the third quarter, but the Cavaliers capitalized on fourth-quarter chances to make the game close. In the 48th minute, UVA’s Annie McDonough scored to make it 2-1.
With 3:03 to play, Heck again gave the Tar Heels some breathing room when she drove the baseline, got around the keeper and deposited the ball into the cage to again put Carolina up by two, 3-1.
Virginia, which reached the title game with an overtime comeback win against Wake Forest in the semifinals on Wednesday, responded to cut the margin to one with just 1:35 to play. Laura Janssen redirected a shot from Cato Geusgens to make the score 3-2, where it stood at the final buzzer.
“We watched them play against Wake Forest, and we knew they were capable of coming back,” Shelton said. “So we expected it to come. We just didn’t know when. But they are a fourth-quarter team. I’m happy for our team that we held onto the win.”