With less than 10 minutes remaining in Saturday’s match at North Carolina, Terrapins field hockey coach Missy Meharg used her only timeout.
The No. 1 Terps, who entered the contest averaging 5.2 goals per game, were having trouble breaking through the No. 3 Tar Heels’ potent defense and trailed 1-0. So Meharg aimed to re-energize her team and made a slight tactical adjustment to enhance the pressure on the North Carolina defense.
“We wanted to change our formation,” forward Jill Witmer said. “It was more of an attack formation so we could get a goal.”
The move paid off. Less than three minutes after the timeout, Witmer, a three-time All-American, redirected a shot from forward Mieke Hayn into the net for the Terps’ first goal, forcing overtime. In the extra period, the aggressive play continued, and Witmer scored again to give the Terps (11-0, 3-0 ACC) a 2-1 victory over rival North Carolina (9-2, 1-2).
On her game-winning tally, Witmer took a pass from defender Ali McEvoy and weaved past the Tar Heels defense before firing a shot into the net for her ninth goal of the season.
“Jill’s a world-class player,” Meharg said. “She’s going to put it away.”
Though the Terps outlasted North Carolina thanks to Meharg’s adjustment and Witmer’s talent, the ACC’s top-ranked defense created problems for the Terps throughout the game.
Meharg’s team attempted one off-target shot in the first half. North Carolina, meanwhile, put some pressure on the Terps defense, but goalkeeper Natalie Hunter made a pair of first-half saves to preserve a scoreless tie entering halftime.
The deadlock was typical of the Terps-Tar Heels rivalry. Two of the nation’s most consistently dominant programs traditionally play tight, heated contests.
By halftime, it was clear that Saturday’s tilt was no different.
“We always are prepared, when we are playing Carolina, that it’s going to be a really hard game a physical fight,” Witmer said. “It really showed in that game.”
The Tar Heels got on the board first when midfielder Marta Malmberg slapped a loose ball into the net after a penalty corner nearly 13 minutes into the second half. It’s not often North Carolina, which entered the matchup allowing one goal per game, gives up a lead, but Meharg’s timeout with 9:22 left helped her team recover.
“You only have two timeouts in a hockey game: You get one, the other team gets one and you get halftime, so it’s our little opportunity to be a basketball coach,” Meharg said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that when you’re behind, you need to surprise them and start coming from different angles in your press.”
Witmer, who missed last weekend’s matches while training with the U.S. national team, made the key plays coming out of that timeout and in overtime, but the Terps were also aided by a Tar Heels mistake in the extra period.
North Carolina midfielder Kristy Bernatchez received a yellow card after she tripped forward Katie Gerzabek near midfield in the fourth minute of overtime. That put the Terps a player up for five minutes, which led to Witmer’s game-clinching goal.
The Terps win came on what Meharg called “an emotional day” because of the team’s history with North Carolina. The two teams that combined to win seven straight national championships from 2005 to 2011 won’t be ACC opponents in the future, but they are already scheduled to play each other for at least the next two years.
The latest edition of the rivalry certainly didn’t disappoint. North Carolina outshot the Terps on Saturday and kept them off the scoreboard for the game’s first 62 minutes.
In the end, though, the Terps’ 26th-year coach made a crucial adjustment, and the team’s All-American forward made the vital plays to escape with a victory.
“It’s hard not to love the outcome,” Meharg said. “It came down to the team and the player that were going to make this day end.”