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Byrne steps up in first start, keys No. 6 Army win over UNC

Photo by Mark Wellman

Talk about getting thrown into the fire. 

Army sophomore goalie Sean Byrne got the call on Thursday morning from coach Joe Alberici telling him that he had would be starting for the first time in his young career for the Black Knights against lacrosse blue-blood North Carolina Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. 

Byrne got the job done, stopping 19 shots, making some key clears and otherwise playing like a veteran as the No. 6-ranked Black Knights outlasted a game and aggressive Tar Heels squad, 13-12, to move to 8-1 on the season. 

The deciding goal was a 20-foot blast from sophomore Evan Plunkett, his fourth on the day, off a nifty pass from senior Reese Burek, that put the Black Knights ahead with less than two minutes left in the game.

“I am just happy that the coaching staff believed in me and was willing to give me a shot in net today,” said Byrne, a native of Acworth Ga. and who played for Allatoona High School. “I guess I just made the most of it. I knew that I had a job to do and I had complete trust in my teammates to make my job as easy as possible. 

“North Carolina is a brand-name team, with a lot of excellent players and a great offense. I was a bit nervous before the game started, but I also realized that this was just another game and it is the same white ball I have been playing with my entire career. Again, I just did my job.”

On Monday, Alberici notified Byrne and senior Matt Chess, who started Army’s first eight games, that he was opening up the competition for starting goalie again and felt that, despite Chess’ strong play thus far, Byrne deserved a shot at earning the starting nod. 

“As I have been saying from the beginning of the season, we have two very talented players who can start for us in goal,” said Alberici. “I elected to go with Matt at the beginning of the season because he had more experience and is a proven winner and he has played very well for us this season. But, I decided to open it up again and Sean had the edge coming out of practice this week, so we went with him today. He was awesome today, a big-time difference maker against an ACC team on the road in his first start.”

Alberici was quick to add that Chess handled the change with grace. “The way he dealt with it showed me what a great competitor Matt is,” he said. “He shook (Byrne’s) hand, told him to go out and kill it and that this is all about being part of a team and winning. Sean’s performance today was great, but how Matt handled this was as much or even a bigger story. He was terrific.”

This game, the first between North Carolina and Army in more than three decades (The Tar Heels now hold a 3-1 advantage) was a nail biter from the start. Despite Byrne’s stellar play in net and Army’s renowned defense playing a strong game, the Tar Heels managed to take a 7-5 lead into halftime. Army tied the game at 7-7 midway through the third period before North Carolina clawed ahead 10-8 late in the quarter. 

Army rattled off four straight goals – including a score by faceoff specialist Will Coletti with seconds left in the third quarter – to take a 12-10 lead midway through the fourth period. But, the Tar Heels managed to tie the score up, 12-12, before Plunkett’s score gave the Black Knights their victory – the second over schools (Army beat Syracuse in February) from the much-heralded Atlantic Coast Conference this season. 

AJ Pilate had five caused five turnovers and picked up three groundballs for the Black Knights. Burek had three of Army’s five assists.

“Being down during the game did not really matter to us,” said Plunkett, a sophomore midfielder who is an All-American season. “We work to get the results we want. Whatever the score is, we just keep playing our game and doing what we need to do. We know what we are capable of doing.” 

It was even sweeter, Plunkett said, coming after the Black Knights first loss of the season to Boston University last weekend. “We know we can beat anyone,’ he said. “We get better from losses because we learn from our mistakes and practice harder to keep improving.” 

Perhaps the most important part of the victory was that it could cement Army’s entry into the NCAA tournament if the Black Knights do not gain the Patriot League’s automatic berth into the tourney in May. Army is now 4-0 against four quality non-conference teams in UMass, Rutgers, Syracuse and North Carolina. 

Still, the schedule ahead is grueling with No. 18 ranked Colgate visiting West Point on Saturday and Navy, who has upset Johns Hopkins and Colgate this season, visiting on April  13. 

“There is no question about it that North Carolina is a very good team and one of the best lacrosse programs over the last three decades,” Alberici added. “You go beat UNC on their field and it is a big win. But Colgate is a really good, physical team and that is going to be a pivotal Patriot League game for us. We will need to bring our best.”

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