by Megan Walsh, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina women's lacrosse coach Jenny Levy is used to saying goodbye to key players and contributors. After all, it happens every year when you head up a college program.
This season is no different. So as the Tar Heels prepare for their season opener against Florida on Saturday, Levy is asking the same question she does year after year.
"We are reworking things with new personalities in the mix," Levy said. "Every year our goal is to graduate first-team All Americas, Tewaaraton finalists and Tewaaraton winners. We've done that the past four or five years.
"We've done it and we've bid them farewell and thanks for all they've done and we've turned right around and said 'OK, who's up next?'"
And for UNC, there are plenty of names on that list this year. After dropping to Syracuse 17-16 with a last-second goal in the 2012 NCAA Quarterfinals, North Carolina finished its season 15-4, undefeated in the ACC and ranked No. 5 overall in the nation.
But Levy is looking forward to that challenge. This year's Tar Heels are led by four captains - senior midfielders Emily Garrity and Kara Cannizzaro and defenders Sloane Serpe and Margaret Corzel - and were picked No. 4 in the 2013 Inside Lacrosse Faceoff Yearbook poll. Carolina also was ranked No. 5 by the IWLCA and the deBeer media poll.
Levy expects Garrity and Cannizarro to benefit from an impressive offseason and star in UNC's newly deep midfield, something North Carolina hasn't seen in a number of years.
"Our speed and athleticism in the midfield is going to be very good," Levy said. "We are strong and fast pretty much all over the field, which I like. We have several different players who will provide great offense for us. We have a lot of different options and kids who can put the ball in the back of the net in a lot of different ways."
She also expects Abby Friend to continue to shine offensively for the Tar Heels at the attack. Friend finished third on the team in scoring with 60 points last season, just ahead of Cannizzaro with 52, and will bring international experience from playing on the Canadian national team to her game for her junior season.
On the defensive end, Serpe and Corzel have already stood out and are expected to make an impact returning to the backline and leading a crop of newcomers.
Corzel is returning from an ACL tear, while Serpe will lead the defense after being an integral part of a completely new backline last year. Levy is looking forward to having a more experienced group this season after scaling down and playing extremely simple as a unit last year.
"The two of them are just tough, smart, very connected on the field and really doing a great job of helping the younger players get better," Levy said. "Their reach and their influence have been great and something that's hard not to notice."
Those younger players have already made a lasting impression on Levy, as well. This crop of freshman was ranked as the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation by Inside Lacrosse magazine, and Levy full expects three, four or five of the first-year players to get significant time on the field.
"Young is great," Levy said. "It enables us to create depth and it's exciting. There's enthusiasm with youth and with good leadership they have the opportunity to start their career as a freshman and be on that field contributing. We never see that as a negative. We always see that as a positive."
Even freshman Megan Ward, who Levy said had an outstanding fall, will see some time playing behind starting goalkeeper and senior Lauren Marksym. The challenge of having a younger player perform well in the same position is a challenge Levy likes to see for all her older players, Marksym included.
But UNC's schedule is the challenge currently on everyone's mind within the women's lacrosse program. With their first game slated against Florida on Saturday at noon at Fetzer Field, the Tar Heels will face an NCAA Final Four team immediately. Just a few weeks later, national champion Northwestern will head to Chapel Hill.
"We pride ourselves on playing a tough schedule," Levy said. "It's a great opportunity for us to go out and see what we've got and how we respond to the different challenges that we'll see throughout the game. We look forward to the big games. Our players like to play in the big games. To open the season certainly gets our guys' attention to be on it right away."
Being on it will be important for the Tar Heels too. With more depth than any recent year Levy can remember, a group of impressive four leaders and competition between plenty of vying talent, Levy is excited to achieve her goals with the team this season.
"In coaches' talk, we want to get better every day," Levy said. "We want to sure up our ability to win possessions on the draw and obviously defend and put the ball in the back of the net.
"Our goals for this season are what they always are: we want to compete and position ourselves for an ACC title and also a national championship."