Women's lacrosse: Unique ties add intrigue to Navy, North Carolina quarterfinal matchup
Josh Dionne is a bit conflicted this week.
On the one hand, Dionne is thrilled to see the Navy women's lacrosse team advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, Dionne is now tasked with putting an end to the magical run of the Midshipmen, who have pulled off several upsets over the past couple weekends.
Dionne is in his first season as offensive coordinator at North Carolina after serving in the same capacity at Navy the previous two years. Those two schools will meet this Saturday with a berth in the NCAA semifinals on the line.
It sets up a strange situation for Dionne, who just last year was designing offensive sets and plays in Annapolis. The former Duke All-American attacker helped develop some of the scorers who spearhead the Navy attack, notably senior captain Morgan Younga along with twin sisters Jenna and Julia Collins.
"I'm really excited for the Naval Academy. It was such a cool experience for me to get into coaching at such a great institution," Dionne said. "To see those girls that I was fortunate to coach continue to have success is awesome. I want nothing but the best for those kids, especially considering what they have to do after college."
Aly Messinger is in a similar position as Dionne. Last year, Messinger was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after leading North Carolina to its second national championship. Messinger replaced Dionne as Navy offensive coordinator and now finds herself formulating a game-plan designed to upset her alma mater.
"It is super weird, but also a super cool and interesting opportunity for sure," Messinger said.
"It is definitely strange to be on the opposite side as some of my best friends. They understand I'm a coach now and have a job to do."
Having opposing offensive coordinators that switched sides is just the beginning of the Navy-North Carolina connections. Matt Holman, Navy's volunteer assistant coach, is also a North Carolina graduate and former goalie for the men's lacrosse team. His younger sister, Sydney Holman, is a starting attacker and fourth-leading scorer for the Tar Heels this season.
"I talked to Sydney on the phone last night and we're both excited to get after it on Saturday," said Matt Holman, who works with the Navy goalkeepers.
Timchal and North Carolina's Jenny Levy, as two of the longest-tenured and most successful head coaches in Division I women's lacrosse, are close friends. The former Jenny Slingluff played at Virginia when Timchal was head coach at Maryland. Her younger sister, Becca Slingluff, played for the Terrapins under Timchal.
Corey Donohoe, another former North Carolina women's lacrosse standout, spent three seasons on the Navy staff (2012-2014). Donohoe, who graduated in 2011 as Carolina's all-time leader in goals (192) and points (256) is now coaching high school and club lacrosse in Nashville, Tennessee.
"It's funny how things have worked out this year with Navy playing at North Carolina because there are a bunch of connections between the two programs," said Levy, who is wrapping up her 22nd season in Chapel Hill. "It's not about me or Aly or Matt Holman. It's about the players."
Messinger, who concluded her Carolina career ranked third in school history with 230 points, has followed in the footsteps of Donohoe and Dionne as a young coach given a start in the business by Timchal. Messinger, like those two aforementioned collegiate standouts, has also proven an outstanding hire as Timchal has praised her performance as offensive coordinator.
Navy is averaging almost 16 goals per game and has four players that have amassed 70 points or more.
Plenty of highlights in this one! Carolina puts up 23 on Virginia to advance to the NCAA Quarterfinals pic.twitter.com/FeGlZGuNNU— UNC Women's Lacrosse (@uncwlax) May 14, 2017
"It wasn't until this time last year that I realized I would regret not trying to coach. I wasn't ready to give up the sport of lacrosse," said Messinger, a product of West Mendham High in New Jersey. "Toward the end of my senior season, I sat down with Coach Levy in her office one day and talked about it. It meant a lot to hear Coach Levy say she thought I would make a good coach."
Messinger has shown she's a quick study, directing an offense that has really hit its stride in the postseason. Navy stunned top-seeded Loyola by scoring 15 goals in the Patriot League Tournament championship then exploded for 23 goals against Massachusetts in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I've had so much fun this season and grown so much as coach," Messinger said. "To watch these kids grow as far as their skills and just get better and better each day has been really rewarding."
Messinger still isn't sure if she'll make coaching a career, but is thankful for having learned from two of the best in the business. Timchal is the all-time winningest head coach in women's lacrosse history with 490 career victories. Levy boasts an impressive career record of 312-108.
"I am so, so fortunate to have gotten a chance to play for and work with two of the greatest coaches in the history of our sport," Messinger said.
Levy remembered Dionne from his prolific playing career at Duke, where he rung up 162 career points and was a two-time All-American. When Katrina Dowd left Carolina to become head coach at Oregon, Levy called Timchal for a recommendation on Dionne.
"Josh was someone I was interested in right off the bat and Cindy confirmed that he was very creative and innovative," Levy said. "Josh exudes such great passion for lacrosse. I really like his philosophy and how he sees the game."
Dionne said he will always treasure the Naval Academy experience, which went way beyond the lacrosse field. The New Hampshire native learned a lot about what the service academy represents and what the players must deal with in terms of academic and military responsibilities.
"I think that is part of the reason why Navy has gone so far this season. They have so much invested in this thing together, which is what a team is all about. Navy is certainly a team on and off the field," Dionne said. "It goes without saying that Navy is going to be tough, going to be in shape, going to be relentless. Basically, they are going to uphold on the field all those creeds they live by as midshipmen."
Navy put an end to Loyola's 41-game winning streak against Patriot League opponents to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Midshipmen then upset seventh-seeded Pennsylvania on its home field in the first round. Many women's lacrosse pundits are surprised to see the Mids in the quarterfinals, but Dionne is not.
"I'm not surprised one bit. We were knocking on the door against Loyola two years ago. I knew it was only a matter of time before Navy beat Loyola," Dionne said. "Just look at Cindy's resume. That's why she was hired to start the whole Navy program in the first place. Navy wanted a winner and that's what they got. If you give Cindy a taste of the tournament, she's going to eat it up. Cindy has been taking teams deep into the playoffs her entire career."
Dionne is very familiar with some of Navy's top offensive weapons, knows their strengths and weaknesses. However, that does not mean he'll be developing a scouting report for the North Carolina defense. Phil Barnes, former head coach at Holy Cross and Massachusetts, is in his 14th season as defensive coordinator at Carolina.
"We joked around about me having the in-depth scouting report. At the end of the day, Phil Barnes is so good at what he does. I don't think Phil needs my help to prepare a game-plan," Dionne said. "My job is to worry about the offense. I'm just trying to coach up the players I have now so that they can live their dreams. I haven't really thought about coaching against Navy. I'm more concerned with getting my players prepared."
ICYMI - led by Molly Hendrick's 9-point game, Carolina claimed it's second consecutive ACC title pic.twitter.com/F18kCpRZsE— UNC Women's Lacrosse (@uncwlax) May 1, 2017
This matchup will tug at the heart-strings of Matt Holman, who dearly loves his younger sister and would hate to see her collegiate career came to a crashing halt in the quarterfinals. Sydney Holman did not get to play in last year's national championship game victory after suffering her second serious knee injury in late March.
Holman has fully rehabilitated from reconstructive surgery and is enjoying a superb senior season with 25 goals and 30 assists.
"It's definitely going to be an awesome experience to go head-to-head against Sydney and I'm excited to get to see her play in-person again," said Matt Holman, who has not been able to do so this season due to his coaching responsibilities at Navy. "Sydney's had a had such a great career at North Carolina and I'm really happy she has been able to finish strong after all she has been through."
Holman comes from a family with serious lacrosse roots. Brian Holman, his father, is a Severn School graduate and three-time All-American goalkeeper at Johns Hopkins. Bobby Holman, his uncle, is a 1977 graduate of the Naval Academy and played lacrosse under head coach Dick Szlasa.
Marcus Holman, his younger brother, was an All-American attackman at North Carolina and finalist for the prestigious Tewaaraton Award. He is now playing for the Ohio Machine of Major League Lacrosse.
After retiring from a highly successful career in the mortgage business, Brian Holman served as an assistant coach at North Carolina for eight years while his two sons played there. Laurie Holman, his wife, worked part-time as Director of Lacrosse Operations for the Carolina women's lacrosse program.
Brian Holman is currently the head coach of the Utah men's lacrosse team, which is attempting to move from club to varsity status. Marcus Holman works as an assistant for his father. This is Matt Holman's first foray into collegiate coaching and he has been hooked.
"I'm just very fortunate to be part of this great run by Navy and have enjoyed every minute of coaching here this season," he said. "I really am having a lot of fun. Obviously, the Naval Academy is a special place and I get to coach an incredible group of players. Working for a legend like Coach Timchal has been a great experience."
Unfortunately, Matt is not getting a lot of family support in this matchup between Navy and North Carolina.
"I talked to my Dad right after our win against UMass on Sunday and asked who he and my mom would be rooting for this weekend," he said.
Brian Holman, who owned a summer house in Sherwood Forest for many years, was diplomatic in his response.
"We'll have to go with Sydney first since she is still playing, but if Navy pulls it out we'll be rooting for the Midshipmen in the Final Four," the elder Holman said.
Holman has spent this season tutoring the Navy netminders and takes pride in the development of starter Ingrid Boyum, who has been outstanding in the postseason.
"I think our goalies have made great strides. Ingrid has done a great job of being composed and confident in these big games that we've been playing," he said.
This article is written by Bill Wagner from The Capital, Annapolis, Md. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.