Making the Most of Extra Year of College Lacrosse, Former PU Star McCarthy Helped UNC Reach Final 4
EXTRA SPECIAL: Connor McCarthy heads upfield in a game this spring for the University of North Carolina men’s lacrosse team. Former Princeton University standout McCarthy, who was playing for UNC as a grad student, helped the Tar Heels reach the NCAA Final 4. Midfielder McCarthy tallied 14 goals this spring for UNC, including a game-winner in overtime against Rutgers in a 12-11 victory in the NCAA quarterfinals. (Photo provided courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
With the season on the line for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team, Connor McCarthy received a pass from his left and wound up to shoot when he saw daylight ahead of him. Dancing forward, he over-handed a blast into the back of the net that sent UNC into the NCAA Final 4 with a 12-11 overtime win against Rutgers in a quarterfinal clash.
“I definitely have not had any experience like that, no game-winner or anything,” said midfielder McCarthy, a former Princeton University lax standout who was playing at UNC this spring as a grad student.
“To do it like that, with a game-winner in the NCAA tournament having not made the tournament ever was really special and to go out at the end with it was really special. That was a super surreal moment and really cool and I’ll never forget that.”
McCarthy would have loved to have had the same chance the year before as a senior at Princeton and felt the Tigers were in the midst of a special season when the COVID-19 pandemic ended that possibility.
“Our team was clicking so well and everyone was getting along and enjoying being with each other every day,” said McCarthy of the Tigers, who went 5-0 and rose to No. 3 in the national rankings before the campaign was halted.
“Then obviously everyone’s world kind of came to a halt. It was a tough pill to swallow, given how well we were playing and how much fun we were having. I kind of thought that was going to be my college lacrosse career.”
But the NCAA granted players an extra season of eligibility, and while Princeton did not allow fourth-year students to return to play, McCarthy took advantage of the extra year and made the most of it while pursuing his MBA at North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“Luckily it was like the high school recruiting season all over again,” said McCarthy, who will finish his MBA next year.
“We obviously all wanted to go back to Princeton and did everything we could at the time to go back but it didn’t work out for us. I was super lucky. Coach [Matt] Madalon, Coach [Jim] Mitchell, and Coach [Jeremy] Hirsch really helped me throughout the whole process and were super understanding of everything. They knew our hands were kind of being forced. They put some great recommendations in for me at a couple different schools. I was super lucky to end up in a really great situation.”
Hirsch, who played and coached with North Carolina associate head coach and former Princeton assistant coach Dave Metzbower, helped establish the connection with the Tar Heels. But McCarthy knew nobody at UNC when he entered the NCAA’s transfer portal. He didn’t have a Princeton or high school teammate at UNC.
“It was definitely a bit nerve wracking jumping into a fully different team, living with them from Day One having not met them at all,” said McCarthy.
“After a couple of awkward nice to meet you’s and hellos, finding my footing there was pretty easy. Very early on, I was really comfortable with the whole team and with the coaching staff and how they did things.”
The 6’3, 200-pound midfielder from Sudbury, Mass. was welcomed for his final year of eligibility and bolstered the Tar Heels attack. He scored 14 goals for the Tar Heels, an astoundingly consistent number. He also scored 14 goals in his most productive season at Princeton, his sophomore year in 2018, and he had 14 points on 13 goals and one assist in five games of his promising senior year for the Tigers.
“This whole last year sucked with not being able to finish up at Princeton, but seeing how a different team operated and a different Division 1 program works from the inside was a really cool opportunity,” said McCarthy.
“They welcomed me in with open arms at UNC. It really wasn’t hard at all by the end of it.”
None of McCarthy’s goals were any bigger than the overtime score in the NCAA quarterfinals against Rutgers. It was his only game-winner of the season and of his career.
“That was super cool,” said McCarthy. “We came out a little slow against Rutgers. I know them super well having played them four years prior and given that they’re 20 minutes down the road from us. I know their coaching staff and players well. I knew it was going to be a good game. They’re super scrappy and they like to play fast.”
McCarthy’s game-winner came just over two minutes into the four-minute overtime. It pushed the top-seeded Tar Heels into the Final 4 and punched his first ticket to championship weekend.
“It was the ultimate goal in using my fifth year, getting on a team where we’d mesh well and play well together and hopefully make it to that point,” said McCarthy.
“That was super cool, definitely an experience. Hubert Davis, the new UNC basketball coach, came and spoke to us a few days before we left to go to Hartford. He was talking about how the Final 4 is the coolest experience he’s been a part of. For him, it was basketball so it was a little different, but he played in the NBA and had a bunch of success at a bunch of different levels, but he kept on talking about how special the Final 4 was. Coach Metzbower, I don’t know how many national championships he’s won, it’s at least six or seven, and he’s been to three or four other final fours and he’s had a ton of experience there too. Everyone was talking about how cool it was.”
Continuing his clutch play, McCarthy also had a goal in the NCAA semifinal but eventual champion Virginia edged North Carolina, 12-11, in the grudge match between the teams, leaving the Tar Heels with a final record of 13-3.
“Unfortunately it didn’t turn out for us,” said McCarthy. “We didn’t get to play two games, just the one. But it was such a cool experience. To do it with some really, really good friends that I made throughout the year and to persevere through the COVID stuff and figuring out what works on our team and injuries and everything was super cool. Playing in the Final 4 was unreal.”
Getting the chance to finish his career on the final weekend of college lacrosse was a thrill for McCarthy. He was empathetic to the Princeton team which did not play any games this spring after the Ivy League postponed the start of the season and then severely limited teams’ chances to compete by placing a regional limit for travel on them. Former teammates at Princeton sent messages regularly through the season.
“They didn’t have a team to root for, so they were just rooting for us and any other Princeton guys playing,” said McCarthy, whose former Tiger teammates, Michael Sowers and Philip Robertson, played for Duke this spring and also made it the Final 4.
“I definitely felt their support and from the older alumni too. I got some cool calls and texts as well. The Tiger Nation was behind me full force and I definitely felt it. It was really cool.”
McCarthy’s former teammates at Princeton recognized all that he had been through to get to a Final 4. He has battled injuries throughout his playing career, beginning in high school. He has had four surgeries between knee and shoulder injuries. He was in and out of the training room at UNC just as he had been at Princeton, but ended up having a relatively healthy season.
“I feel like more than anything I learned a lot about myself about perseverance and working hard and staying confident even though I wasn’t playing as well as I could because I had these injuries,” said McCarthy.
“I think I might have spent more time in the training room at Princeton with George O’Neill and then down at UNC with Nina Walker, more time in the training room than on the field just to make sure I could be on the field. I learned a ton about myself. I had a bunch of help along the way to make sure I could play out there in the games on Saturdays and the practice as much as I could. I definitely couldn’t do it alone.”
Based on his experiences at Princeton, McCarthy had a good grasp on the qualities of what made a season successful and what could bring a team down and he tried to bring that into his new team.
“Being a part of a bunch of different teams, knowing what a good team looks like and feels like, and trying to replicate that in this last year at UNC,” said McCarthy.
“On the field, all the Princeton coaches have done such a good job and made me a better lacrosse player. They increased my lacrosse IQ from my freshman to my senior year so much, and I tried to bring that over as well which was super helpful. I wouldn’t change a thing over my four years of Princeton and whatever I could bring over to the UNC this last year and help them be successful, I tried to.”
McCarthy grew into a more vocal leader during his time at Princeton. At North Carolina, though, he found himself in a unique position, having four years of college under his belt but knowing no one on the team. He had to figure a way to fit in both situations.
“I functioned in a couple different roles on the team and trying to bring all that experience with me to UNC definitely helped a bunch, helping to pull 55 guys all in the same direction,” said McCarthy.
“But like I said to the freshmen, I can really relate to them because of not knowing anybody. And at the same time, I was one of the oldest kids on the team. It was an interesting dynamic, knowing you’re a senior and trying to lead the team but also relating to the freshmen and trying to be there for them and knowing they don’t really know anyone either.”
In the end, McCarthy made the most of one last chance to play when he could not finish out his career at Princeton. Even before he set foot on North Carolina’s campus, he received welcoming messages and knew he had the chance to go out on his terms. He endeared himself with his steady play and the biggest goal of his career in the NCAA quarterfinals to make an unforgettable ending, the sort of move that other Princeton players may have to consider now after missing this spring season.
“It worked out well for me,” said McCarthy. “I made a ton of really, really good friends over this last year who I’ll definitely be friends with for years to come. I’d tell them, ‘have those conversations, don’t rush it, take your time, and it will all work out.’”