Chris Gray’s first few months in Chapel Hill have gone so well that he struggles to name one difficult part of the transition.
His new North Carolina teammates and coaches have welcomed the heralded Boston University transfer and All American with open arms. The facilities are top-notch. He’s excited about his recently declared major in management and society. Plus, the South offers warmer weather, a multitude of biscuit restaurants and, if he’s ever feeling homesick, a Dunkin’ Donuts right down nearby Franklin Street. Has anything been an adjustment?
“Well, I had this app that got me around campus from building to building,” Gray said with a laugh, “but now I’m kind of just going on my own.”
On the heels of a record-setting 2019 season, the junior attacker is giving immediate life to a talented yet inconsistent Tar Heel program that went 8-7 last year. The potential was evident when UNC challenged reigning national champion Virginia (two one-goal losses), but the Tar Heels just missed out on an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
For his teammates and coaches, it’s finally starting to set in that Gray and his accolades — a Patriot League single-season record 111 points, spots among the country’s top 10 in goals (49) and assists (62) despite missing the NCAA Tournament and a slew of postseason honors — are here to stay.
“Behind the back goals, underhand, shots that I truly haven’t seen here since Chris Cloutier left …” teammate William Perry said. “That’s when everybody just kind of stops and goes, ‘OK, he’s on another level.’”
Those skills have been in works since kindergarten, when Gray grew tired of watching his older brother, Nicholas, have all the fun and got a stick of his own. As soon as he held it, Gray said, he was hooked. The sport became his life in Wading River, N.Y., a small town where everyone knows everyone and lacrosse is king.
At Shoreham-Wading River High School, he was an admitted “late bloomer” who committed to Boston U as a sophomore. Larger schools came knocking when Gray led Long Island in points for consecutive seasons and earned high school All-America honors.
But he stuck with the Terriers because of the atmosphere, the city and the relative proximity to home. And he’ll have you know he doesn’t regret his time there one bit. As a freshman, he put up 40 assists and 71 points, both program records at the time.
And after a summer of the extra work he prides himself on — lifting, shooting, constant preparation — he broke out for the best individual season in school and conference history. The Terriers went 11-6, upset No. 2 Loyola at home and lost to Lehigh in the Patriot League semifinals.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today without the years I had at BU,” Gray said.
At the end of his sophomore year, he started considering a transfer. It was first and foremost an “academic ambition,” he said. Gray wasn’t satisfied with his major and wanted something more intriguing and rigorous.
When he entered the transfer portal, UNC head coach Joe Breschi perked up from 700 miles away. As did his players. Within days of Gray’s decision, the majority of UNC’s team reached out to him directly.
“We already knew we were going to lose one of our best offensive players in Andy Matthews, at attack,” said Perry, a senior midfielder. “We also knew, right away, he’s probably one of the best transfers to come through the NCAA. With someone like that available, we went full force.”
After an in-home visit from Breschi and defensive coordinator Kevin Unterstein, who is also from Shoreham, Gray and his parents felt an immediate sense of comfort — more so than with the Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Virginia and Duke programs he had also talked with.
On an official visit later that month, Gray met Breschi in his office and told the coach: “Thank you for having me.” That simple gesture of appreciation and respect blew Breschi away.
Gray’s mentality and approach, the coach immediately thought, could work perfectly with the family mindset his program tries to foster. Within hours, his players agreed.
“The guys called me that night after they spent some time with him,” Breschi said, “and they were like, ‘Coach, he fits like a glove.’”
UNC announced Gray’s transfer June 22, and he started training with the team in August. Perry was already setting lofty goals after UNC’s 2019 season ended, and Gray, he said, could be the final piece of the puzzle. The star attacker agreed.
“From top down, the team’s filled with great players,” Gray said. “And everyone has the same mission and the same goal, which is to win ACC championship and win the national championship. It’s been stressed through our team that it starts now in the fall.”
Fall Ball Focus
Breschi has long pushed the idea that a championship-winning team must be a family. This summer, alongside constant team meals and carpooling to practice, the entire team read and discussed a book, “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon, to bond further.
“That’s something that I think sets our program apart from others,” Perry said. “We get to know each other day in, day out.”
Last season, UNC was just 2-5 in games decided by two goals or less. That included two back-breaking, one-goal losses to Virginia in the regular season and ACC semifinals. This season, Breschi wants to be on the other side of those razor-thin margins.
“That’s the game of lacrosse at Division I,” he said. “Winning those one-goal games, it’s really paying attention to every little detail.”
Ten freshmen got consistent playing time for the Tar Heels last season, including attackers Nicky Solomon (30 points) and Jacob Kelly (17 points). Freshman goalie Caton Johnson also played in nine games and had a team-high 81 saves, including 21 in a single game.
“I think a year under their belt has really helped them from a maturity standpoint,” Breschi said of the now-sophomores. “They’ve come back in incredible shape, ready to compete at an even higher level.”
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