by Emily Fedewa, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- Sometimes a championship season can be a tough act to follow.
But the 2013 NCAA champion University of North Carolina women's lacrosse team, which is ranked preseason No. 1 by both Inside Lacrosse and Lacrosse Magazine, isn't concerned with last year.
It's more focused on this year, and preseason practice began on Wednesday.
"We embrace the success we had last year. It wasn't by accident, so we are happy to celebrate that success," head coach Jenny Levy said. "But at the same time we all understand that there's a full season to be played and a lot of work to be done."
Despite losing a handful of key seniors from last year's team - including All-America midfielder Emily Garrity and All-America National Player of the Year Kara Cannizzaro - Levy believes that this year's team still has the potential to be great.
To help fill those openings, UNC returns 10 of 12 starters from the NCAA championship game and brings in the top freshman class in the nation.
"With change comes opportunities for new players to rise to the occasion," Levy said. "I think there are a lot of young players who are ready and excited to take on the challenge and fill (the seniors') shoes."
One of those 10 returning starters is sophomore goalie Megan Ward.
Ward took over as a starter in the last seven games of the 2013 season, including the NCAA tournament, where she made key saves in UNC's overtime win over Maryland in the title game to help the Tar Heels win the championship.
UNC also returns a stellar defense in front of Ward.
Senior Sloane Serpe and junior captain Margaret Corzel help to anchor that defense. Serpe is a two-time All-America while Corzel is in her second year as team captain, and they are both slated as first team preseason All-Americas.
That strong unit gives Ward even more pride in her role as the final line of defense for the Tar Heels.
"Our defense is amazing. I have so much confidence in them and that's so helpful as a goalie," Ward said. "When a shot gets to me, I know they've done everything that they could've possibly done. That makes me feel a lot more responsible for the saves and it gives me a little more confidence too."
The Tar Heels balance that defense with a strong offense as well. Abbey Friend, a preseason All-America and one of the top goal scorers in school history, returns as a senior along with sophomore Aly Messinger, who made the All-NCAA tournament team last year as a freshman. Senior Taylor George also is back for a third year as a starter.
"It definitely takes a lot of pressure off our defense. Even though our defense is amazing, we still have an attack that will give us a little padding," Ward said. "And it's nice to know that they'll be successful when we play the ball up the field."
Despite losing Cannizzaro and Garrity from last year's midfield, preseason first-team All-America Brittney Coppa returns, as does sophomore Sammy Jo Tracy, who scored the game-winning goal in the NCAA final.
Although on paper this team looks like it will contend for another national title, Levy and her team know that doesn't mean much without focus and hard work during the entire season.
"I do honestly believe that we can reach our potential and be great," Levy said. "And there are a lot of great kids on our roster but that doesn't mean we're going to have success without a lot of hard work."