Commentary

North Carolina has that winning feeling

Originally Published: November 10, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

North Carolina field hockey players Katelyn Falgowski and Elizabeth Stephens are looking for one more celebration this fall. The seniors hope to help the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels win the program's seventh national championship as the NCAA tournament gets under way Saturday, with UNC facing Ohio.

[+] EnlargeKatelyn Falgowski
North Carolina athleticsNorth Carolina senior Katelyn Falgowski took time off this season to play for Team USA at the Pan Am Games. She returned to the Tar Heels with a gold medal.

Falgowski and Stephens already have had a lot to celebrate in their final season in Chapel Hill, N.C. They won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, the latter coming Sunday in College Park, Md., with a 2-1 victory over Duke. And the week before that, they got to bask in two other championships -- although those were very different and the two UNC teammates were 2,000 miles apart at the time.

On Oct. 28, Falgowski won a gold medal with the U.S. field hockey team at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Later that night, Stephens watched on television as her favorite pro sports team, the St. Louis Cardinals, won the World Series.

Two days after that, Falgowski and Stephens were together on the field again, as the Tar Heels -- then ranked No. 2 -- upset No. 1 Old Dominion 2-1 in Norfolk, Va.

"It's been an amazing experience," Falgowski said of her whirlwind autumn. "To work so hard for something and accomplish it -- getting the gold -- is a huge honor. Then being able to leave my USA family to come back to the Tar Heels was an honor, too. I was really glad to get the chance to play against ODU again and finish out the regular season."

The Monarchs, who are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, actually handed UNC its only loss this season: 3-1 on Sept. 16 in Chapel Hill. At that time, the Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 and ODU was No. 2.

Then in October, Falgowski left UNC to train with the national team and prepare for the Pan Am Games. She was the only collegian on the U.S. squad when it competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and she was slated to be done with college play this fall. However, she suffered a concussion in 2010 that not only forced her to redshirt last season but gave her a real scare.

For nearly four months after the accident -- she and an assistant coach accidentally knocked heads during a preseason scrimmage -- Falgowski wasn't able to do much of anything athletically as she had headaches and her vision was impaired.

"I had to let myself heal," she said. "Concussions are a scary thing, because it's not like you can tell for sure when it's going to be healed. You have to have patience and just wait it out.

"I had great support and medical attention with the trainers and doctors here. But it definitely challenges you mentally to give your body the time to heal. Looking back, I feel so fortunate I have recovered 100 percent. It makes me cherish my teammates and being active and able to play."

Falgowski was able to travel to Maryland last November to cheer on her teammates in the Final Four, where they lost the title match to the Terps 3-2 in double overtime. During the summer, she was back in action with the national team, then returned to play for UNC in August.

When she left again to prep for the Pan Am Games, she had confidence the team would continue to grow. And it did. The Tar Heels beat ACC rival Maryland without her on Oct. 22. The next day was senior day, which Falgowski missed while still in Mexico. The Tar Heels pulled out a 4-3 double-overtime win against Michigan.

They knew that Falgowski would be back for the regular-season finale, Oct. 30 at ODU. She left Guadalajara the afternoon of Oct. 29 and arrived in Norfolk around 11 p.m. Sunday afternoon, she didn't really feel the jet lag or fatigue, as she had the assist on UNC's winning goal in overtime.

"It was such a crazy weekend," Falgowski said. "I think you kind of shut down your emotions and save them for later and go about business as you need to. But what more can you ask for if you're a competitive athlete? To go from the finals in one event to a No. 1 versus 2 matchup."

Falgowski, who went to high school in Wilmington, Del., followed her two older sisters in college field hockey; Kerry preceded her at UNC and Carly played at William & Mary.

[+] EnlargeElizabeth Stephens
North Carolina athleticsElizabeth Stephens picked up the sport late but has turned into a key contributor for the top-seeded Tar Heels.

There are 16 current Tar Heels from the states of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. That area is the hotbed of the sport. It also means the Tar Heels are a team full of Phillies baseball fans. Meanwhile, there is only one Midwesterner -- Stephens, who has family roots in St. Louis going back for generations.

So when the Phillies and Cardinals met in the divisional playoffs, the passionate St. Louis fan was greatly outnumbered.

"When it came to the playoffs, I was recruiting our Southerners and foreign players to be on my side," Stephens said, laughing. "Once the Phillies lost to the Cardinals, I won over a couple more of my teammates to cheer for St. Louis."

The night of the amazing World Series Game 6, Stephens couldn't quite stay awake when the battle drifted into extra innings.

"But I woke up right before David Freese hit the home run," Stephens said of the game winner in the 11th inning, around 1 a.m. East Coast time. "So that was great timing. Then I couldn't fall asleep after Game 7 until about 2 o'clock in the morning because I was so excited."

She still played a big part in the ensuing win over ODU, assisting on the Tar Heels' first goal. Stephens, like Falgowski, has a big family influence in sports, as her father played tennis in college and her mother played collegiate ice hockey. Stephens has eight goals and six assists this season, and UNC coach Karen Shelton has praised her for being so determined to become a key player for the Tar Heels.

A former swimmer who had to give up that sport because of shoulder injuries, Stephens acknowledges that she had a bigger learning curve in field hockey when she got to college. She wasn't exposed to quite the same level of coaching and competition growing up in St. Louis as most of her East Coast teammates were. She redshirted her freshman year at UNC.

"Because I was almost like a blank slate when I came into this program, playing with so many amazing field hockey players, I was able to learn by watching them," Stephens said. "And I think that not coming from one of those hotbeds of the sport made me have the perspective that, 'OK, I need to work my tail off,' because I felt I had more to prove.

"I have to get out a map of the U.S. sometimes to show people first where Missouri is, and where St. Louis is. But once we're all out there on the field, there are no state boundaries. The differences melt away."

UNC hopes to ride that togetherness through the next two weekends and finish the season at the Final Four in Louisville, Ky. If any of the Tar Heels aren't very familiar with where that city is, Stephens is sure to have a map handy.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.