This time of year, big games are the norm in the state of North Carolina. While they're usually indoors on the basketball court, one men's lacrosse matchup in the February chill promises to upstage the heat of the Atlantic Coast Conference hoops' race.
No. 9 Johns Hopkins will play its third consecutive road contest when it travels to the University of North Carolina to take on the No. 4 Tar Heels at 2 p.m. Feb. 21.
For the Blue Jays [2-1], who are coming off a 13-10 win at Villanova after a midweek upset loss at Towson, the trip South should provide warmer temperatures after the team played three games during an eight-day span to begin the 2015 campaign. Hopkins will look to reverse a trend that has seen the team lose seven of its last eight matchups against North Carolina.
By contrast, this will be the fourth of seven straight home games for North Carolina, which has outscored opponents, 54-21, begin the season. The Tar Heels have put up at least 15 goals during each of their first three games while holding opponents to single digits.
A preseason breakdown by Inside Lacrosse magazine ranked Carolina's attack unit second in the nation [behind only Syracuse] and both its midfield and defense sixth -- at least one notch higher in each category than Hopkins, which came in at fifth, eighth and seventh, respectively.
Senior attackman Jimmy Bitter has posted hat tricks during each of his first three games and six points during each of the last two -- a point shy of his career high. A strong dodger who was selected 22nd overall by the Ohio Machine during the Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft Jan. 23, Bitter leads the team with 10 goals.
Fellow senior and All-American attackman Joey Sankey -- the No. 9 pick of the Charlotte Hounds -- has eight tallies. Bitter and Sankey both have seven assists. Bitter ranks eighth in the nation in points per game [5.67], while Sankey ranks 10th [5.00].
Sophomore attackman Luke Goldstock has added seven goals and four assists.
The Blue Jays Jays are led offensively by junior attackman Ryan Brown [Calvert Hall] with 13 goals. Brown, who finished with 40 goals and 14 assists in 2014, owns the nation's fourth-longest active goal-scoring streak at 19 games. Senior Wells Stanwick [Boys' Latin] has contributed 11 points, including eight assists, while his freshman brother, Shack, [Boys' Latin] has five goals and nine points.
While Hopkins ranks 18th in the nation in goals per game [11.35], it is 17th in assists per game [6.67] and 16th in points per contest . The Blue Jays' offense shows good ball movement, with 58.8 percent of its goals having been assisted this season.
They also fare well at the X position, winning 64.6 percent of faceoffs with three effective draw specialists -- senior midfielder Drew Kennedy [18-of-29], sophomore midfielder Kevin O'Toole of Loyola Blakefield [11-of-15] and freshman midfielder Hunter Moreland of Boys' Latin [11-of-19].
Like North Carolina, the Blue Jays' defense has allowed 21 goals this season, ranking 12th in the nation in scoring defense. Senior defenseman John Kelly [Bullis] trails only Kennedy in ground balls with eight. Senior short stick defensive midfielder Phil Castronova [Calvert Hall] has scooped five ground balls and forced a pair of turnovers this season.
The Tar Heels also have a distinct Maryland flavor, with 10 roster players having played in the region -- seven in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. They boast three former Gilman standouts, including 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior midfielder Jake Matthai, redshirt senior midfielder Duncan Hutchins and freshman midfielder William McBride. A trio of Calvert Hall graduates also dot the lineup -- junior midfielders Evan Connell and Patrick Kelly and sophomore faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly. Sophomore Brett Bedard [Severn] has also seen significant minutes as a short-stick defensive midfielder.
The connection extends to North Carolina's coaching staff as well, which includes ex-Loyola University assistant Dave Metzbower and Hopkins/Severn alumnus Brian Holman, father of former Tar Heel All-American attackman Marcus Holman.