Chris Cloutier knew the routine by now. He had done it 18 times in the past four games — an NCAA Tournament record — and with the game, season, and destiny of a team on the line, Cloutier did what came as second nature, once more.
He reared both arms back — protected by a pair of bulky braces — searched for his favorite spot — the bottom left corner of the cage — and released the lacrosse ball with all of his might.
“That’s my go-to spot every time,” Cloutier said, moments after he fired that fate-touched ball. “I found it. And it worked.”
Cloutier’s shot, his 19th goal of the tournament, was the game-winner over the top-ranked Maryland Terrapins, sending UNC coach Joe Breschi, sporting a backward hat by this point in the game, and the rest of the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team leaping onto the field in elation.
As preposterous as it is for an individual to score 19 goals in the four biggest games of the year, or better yet, the four biggest games of his life, how the Tar Heels got to this point was equally as outrageous.
North Carolina became the first unranked team to ever win the national championship, claiming the underdog role in each game on their quest for glory.
When the Selection Show came on May 8th to announce the 16 teams who would get a chance to play for the national title, the Tar Heels weren’t even sure their name would be called.
“We really didn’t believe it until we saw it, “senior captain Jake Matthai said. “We were thinking good thoughts, though.”
And their good thoughts turned into good play. A Tar Heel team that had failed to win three consecutive games all season would have to do just that to get to the national championship.
They were headed to battle sixth-seeded Marquette, who had just won the Big East Championship, but that didn’t matter. The Tar Heels would get to suit up for another game.
UNC snuck by Marquette in the first round, 10-9; upset no. 3 Notre Dame clinching a spot in the semifinals, blew out Loyola 18-13; and found themselves in the national title game against the highest ranked team in the land, Maryland.
“Everyone calls us the roller-coaster ride,” said Cloutier, “But when the playoffs came around, it was all just one big incline.”
If the Tar Heels had lost at any point in the postseason, it wouldn’t have been deemed a failure. They played with their backs against the wall and had a season to be proud of, there was no real pressure.
“Pressure is a funny thing,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “We had zero pressure. We were picked the lowest we’ve ever been picked in the eight years since I’ve been here and last in the ACC, and these guys were on a mission.”
And with little pressure, the Tar Heels thrived. Cloutier led the Tar Heels offense, Brian Balkam turned the goal into a brick wall in the clutch and senior leaders Steve Pontrello and Patrick Kelly anchored the midfield.
Even if they were waiting on the edge of their seat to find out if they would play post-season ball, the players had faith that when playing their best lacrosse, they would be hard to beat.
“It doesn’t matter how you look,” Breschi said, reflecting on the journey. “It’s how you finish.”
The story shifted when the UNC women’s lacrosse team won the national championship, against the same foe, Maryland, on Sunday.
Ladies first, as they say.
There was now a chance to bring two trophies home to Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels had even more incentive.
“They’re a great bunch of girls who deserved to win,” Matthai said. “It really boosted us. If the girls can win, we can do it.”
The women’s team was asked if they would like to fly home after winning the national championship, or they could wait and watch the men’s team and make the 415 mile journey by bus.
We’ll wait, they said. Like that was even a question.
The Tar Heels set the tempo of the game early, getting out to a 4-0 lead against their Goliath, the Terps. But just like any good fight, the teams traded blows, and entered the final quarter tied at ten apiece.
And again, as the ultimate underdog, down a pair of goals with less than four minutes on the clock, the Tar Heels found a way. Then UNC scored a pair of goals in a 31 second span to tie it. Then the foul on UNC’s Luke Goldstock with four ticks left, meaning the Tar Heels would go into overtime a man down. Next a pair of saves by Tar Heel goalie Brian Balkam. Oh yes, and then a ground ball tussle ending in a penalty on Maryland. It all happened so fast.
Breschi turned his hat backward on the sideline as the Tar Heels headed to overtime, a small gesture, but a symbol for the emotions running through his body.
It was time to kick the doors in.
“I felt it was time to turn the hat around, to kick my heels in the ground, and say ‘let’s go!’” Breschi said.
During the break between the fourth quarter and overtime, the Tar Heels coaching staff drew up a play, but it went out the window when UNC got the ball.
“That’s the beauty about our offense,” Matthai said. “They were just sharing the ball and inching closer and probing and probing.”
Cue Cloutier. The soon-to-be-announced tournament MVP. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound sophomore from north of the border. The now Tar Heel legend. His left-handed slider found the back of the net.
The door had fallen.
“I looked up at the sky and everything stood still for a couple seconds,” Matthai said. “You look around and you just start running.”
And run, they did. From pre-season bottom-dwellers in the ACC to the precipice of glory, as newly crowned national champions.
*I had the pleasure of speaking with Coach Joe Breschi and a handful of other North Carolina men’s lacrosse players after their national championship victory. I wrote this story for Sports Illustrated: Campus Rush, but it is not on the site, yet.