ALBANY — An early goal started the University at Albany field hockey team off right against top-ranked North Carolina.
The rest of Sunday’s game at Alumni Turf went the way of No. 1 North Carolina, the sport’s reigning national champion, but No. 21 UAlbany still left the top-25 matchup encouraged despite its 4-1 loss.
“Lots of positives to take away. Initially, there's a lot of nerves and you almost build them up way too much in your head and need a calming-down period,” UAlbany head coach Phil Sykes said of playing the nation’s top team. “Once the second half rolled around, we calmed down and played well. They just have one player, Erin Matson, that once she gets going, she's awesome — probably the best player in college and [she is] on the [U.S.] women's national team. When she gets the ball, she's an offensive threat every single time and that was a big difference.”
Matson, a sophomore, had three goals and an assist for North Carolina, which improved to 12-0 on the season. UAlbany dropped to 9-5.
UAlbany started the scoring in the first quarter when junior midfielder Hanna Zarrilli knocked in an unassisted goal past UNC goalkeeper Amanda Hendry for her first collegiate goal.
"I think our team really played well defensively together and that was a big thing we were focusing on for this game, especially since they are such a good team with highly skilled players,” Zarrilli said. “So I think we definitely worked as a team and our defense really shut them down in the first quarter, which was good for us as we were able to capitalize on it. We all were really focusing on just good defense, quality play, and to make it a good game. After we scored the goal, everyone just uplifted themselves and it definitely added another element to our play and gave us a kick-start.”
UAlbany led 1-0 after a quarter, but North Carolina took a 3-1 lead into halftime after Matson scored twice and had an assist in the second period.
“Being up 1-0 in the first quarter, I was ready to get a photo of that on the scoreboard really quick," said Sykes, who led the UAlbany program to an appearance in the national semifinals in 2014. “That first goal was fantastic and definitely something to remember, [but] UNC showed why they are the No. 1 team and why they haven't lost in two years."
The teams played a scoreless third quarter before North Carolina added an insurance goal in the fourth courtesy of Matson.
“They are so deep. I think that's the toughest thing,” Sykes said of taking on North Carolina. “You just have to get your own team up and confident, relaxed, believing in each other, and then good things can happen. This is such good preparation for the [America East Conference] tournament. If you can play in these games, you are battle-tested. Going into the conference tournament, I know that we can play at this level and it really helps our girls' confidence.”
UAlbany had four regular-season games left, including league games against Monmouth, Maine and UMass Lowell.
UAlbany was in Sunday’s game from start to finish, thanks largely to some key stops from UAlbany starting goalie Melissa Nealon, a Shenendehowa High School graduate who made five saves.
“We are a little upset, as we thought we could hang with them a little more, but, at the same time, we played really well,” Nealon said. “We showed a lot of improvements from our loss [against New Hampshire] on Friday. We didn't go into this game any differently, just stuck to what we do and saw UNC as just another team like any other team we've played.”
"I definitely think this will benefit us, especially now that we know that we can hang with this team,” Zarrilli said. “The first two quarters were awesome for us . . . so that’s a huge confidence booster as we go into the America East Tournament and conference play afterwards. We're really excited for it.”
North Carolina 0 3 0 1 — 4
UAlbany 1 0 0 0 — 1
North Carolina scoring: Matson 3-1, Riccardo 0-1, Leemans 1-1. UAlbany scoring: Zarrilli 1-0. Goalies: North Carolina, Hendry, 4 saves. UAlbany, Nealon, 5 saves. Attendance: 289.