Diverse UNC club hockey team finds success as hockey grows in North Carolina

By Lindsey Ware

Sit down, college basketball. North Carolina is a hockey state.

The bleachers in the stadium shook with the jumping and roaring of cheers as college students huddled close to one another, bundled in their North Carolina and N.C. State gear. Over 25,000 people showed up to Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 20 to watch the schools’ club hockey teams match up in the second-most attended hockey game North Carolina had ever seen. 

The Tar Heels fell to their rivals, but the team found a sense of unity and peace in agreeing on two things — the game was surreal, and North Carolina is a hockey state.

UNC club hockey brings together athletes looking to continue playing their sport in a fun environment, but the team’s recent success points towards a promising future for the program and is an example of the surging passion for hockey in North Carolina.

 Beating its rivals four of six times this season and racking up accolades wasn’t enough for the Tar Heels. The team is now looking to its future with a strong core group of players returning next year, as well as pondering on the future of hockey for the school and in the state.

“We’d be lying if we said we’re not dreaming of UNC one day getting a (Division 1) team,” team captain Henry Foster said. “Out of pure speculation and optimism, in the next 15 years, we’re going to be a D-1 program.”

Cigar-smoking head coach drives team growth & success 

North Carolina is tied with Duke for the most years in ACC Division II hockey26. This year, UNC experienced its most successful season yet, racking up titles such as State Champions, ACCHL Division Champions, Governor’s Cup Champions, and Regional Finalists, as well as going 10-2 against in-state opponents. 

The Tar Heel team is directed by head coach Jeff Volkman. Volkman can often be found smoking a cigar in the locker room after a big win or cracking open a beer on the bus with his of-age players, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take the sport seriously. In his ninth season with UNC hockey this year, Volkman was named the ACHA Southeast Region Coach of the Year.

Volkman was born in Minnesota, where kids are basically born on skates. Volkman began skating at the age of four and went on to play semi-pro hockey in Germany. He’s now been coaching for 25 years, including nearly a decade at UNC. As head coach, he’s built up the program to include a full staff and a more competitive schedule.

Volkman reflected on the big step forward for Tar Heel hockey this season, one characterized by the high crowd attendance that was highlighted at the Carter-Finley outdoor game. As head coach, he values the positive energy in the locker room and the lack of ego on the team. Volkman attributes this culture to the team’s success this season and has high hopes for what is to come.

“There’s going to be more pressure each year on the players and the staff to succeed and keep moving forward,” Volkman said. “We have high expectations, but we make them realistic and keep moving forward.”

UNC club hockey head coach Jeff Volkman, wearing a blue jacket, light blue shirt, and white and light blue tie gives two thumbs-ups as he smokes a cigar in the team locker room. This graphic congratulates Volkman on being named 2023 ACHA Southeast Region Coach of the Year.
UNC club hockey head coach Jeff Volkman started coaching the team in 2014 and since then has helped lead the team to one of its most successful seasons in team history in 2022-23. Graphic courtesy of @UNCHockey.

“As soon as you put on a hockey jersey, we all speak the same language”

The Tar Heel team is aided by players from a variety of backgrounds, from a first-year who was born in hockey-crazed Toronto to a 39-year-old Afghanistan war veteran continuing his hockey career as the team’s goalie. 

Team captain Foster was tempted to play hockey in college after a childhood during which nearly every player he grew up with had aspirations of playing in college. Foster wanted to focus on his long-term future, the next 40 years instead of the next four, he said. When he got into UNC, it was too good of an offer to pass up.

Foster soon discovered UNC club hockey, which allowed him to continue his athletic career at a top public university. Since then, the junior was named the 2021-22 team MVP and currently serves as team captain.

“It’s been some of the most fun hockey I’ve played my whole life,” Foster said. “As soon as you put on a hockey jersey, we all speak the same language.”

The diverse backgrounds of the UNC club hockey team are evident in Afghanistan war veteran Joel Hughes. At 39 years old, Hughes is the oldest member of the team. He is working towards an exercise science degree at the University as he prepares to officially retire from the Army in August. 

After growing up playing hockey in New Hampshire, Hughes enrolled in the Army directly after high school graduation. He has continued his hockey career with a nonprofit team at his military base at Fort Bragg and is now at UNC as the team goalie. Even though his locker room playlist varies significantly from that of his younger teammates, Hughes has had a smooth transition to hockey at the college level.

Joel Hughes, wearing a black beanie on top of his goalie helmet and light blue and white pads, stands in goal at the Frozen Finley game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 20, 2023.
39-year-old war veteran Joel Hughes serves as the UNC club hockey goalie. Hughes is currently pursuing his exercise science degree and plans to retire from the Army in August. Photo courtesy of @tarheelhockey on Instagram.

On the other end of the extreme is 19-year-old Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who is a first-year at UNC. O’Shaughnessy spent the first eight years of his life in Toronto, Canada before relocating to Greensboro, N.C. He found it hard to keep playing hockey because of a lack of popularity and tough competition in the South but has found that sense of competition again at UNC.

The young forward was shocked to join a team that had players up to 20 years older than him but was welcomed with open arms.

Like all other UNC club hockey first-years, O’Shaughnessy had to participate in freshman karaoke. On the bus ride back to Chapel Hill after the first weekend away of the season, first-years take their turn in the karaoke tradition. Taylor Swift and country are commonplace in karaoke, with a few rap songs mixed in.

Apart from karaoke antics, in his first year with UNC club hockey, O’Shaughnessy has recognized the future of the sport in the state where he has spent the last decade.

“Since I’ve been living in North Carolina, the Canes, and hockey in general have grown a lot,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We definitely saw that this year.”

Tense rivalry & the hockey state

The Carolina Hurricanes are North Carolina’s NHL team. The Canes currently lead the Metropolitan Division after winning the division last season and winning the Central Division the season before that. The team ranks second in the league in attendance and attracted nearly 57,000 people to its outdoor Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley this February.

North Carolinians’ dedication to attending hockey games is translating to college hockey. The Tar Heel and Wolfpack hockey rivalry is tense and was on its biggest stage ever in the stadium matchup.

Photo of the hockey rink with fans on the top and bottom of the photo, with the hockey rink in the middle. Surrounding the rink are boards of the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes logo from the NHL Stadium Series game the day prior. The logos are navy blue and red as well as black and red for the Hurricanes.
Fans huddle close in the bleachers at Carter-Finley Stadium for UNC and N.C. State’s matchup on Feb. 20, 2023. Over 25,000 people came out to watch the game. Photo courtesy of @tarheelhockey on Instagram.

UNC entered the season determined to rule over rival N.C. State, who is the notoriously better team and was a 2021 ACHA Division II National Qualifier. Ahead of the first rivalry game of the season, Volkman came into the locker room, and his players eagerly prepared to listen to his insight on approaches to the matchup. Instead, his speech was short. “I hate these guys,” Volkman said about N.C. State’s Ice Pack. “Let’s go.”

A former player shared Volkman’s sentiment in a text to Foster. “Please do it,” he pleaded. “I’m so tired of watching these guys.” North Carolina honed in on its hatred to defeat N.C. State 5-3 in the first rivalry matchup of the season and went on to beat the Ice Pack at the Governor’s Cup for the first Governor’s Cup win in program history.

Photo of the UNC club hockey team, who are posing on the ice after winning the Governor’s Cup. The trophy is on the ice in the middle of the photo with the team, who is wearing light blue jerseys and navy shorts, surrounding it, with some players sitting on the ice, and some standing up. A group of fans is gathered behind the team, behind the glass posing for the picture with some celebrating.
The UNC club hockey team celebrates its first Governor’s Cup win in program history. UNC defeated N.C. State 4-2 at PNC Arena on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo courtesy of @tarheelhockey on Instagram.

The two teams taunt each other on social media with tweets saying things like “bye-bye wolfies” and “Tarhole goal,” but this season, UNC got the last laugh. The Tar Heels clinched the series with a 6-3 win over the Wolfpack in the first round of the ACHA Division II regionals.

Whether they’re chasing the competitive nature of Canadian hockey or looking to stretch out their playing career, UNC hockey players participate in the club to keep playing their sport while working for a degree. But, this year, the team’s success brought the club sport to a new level. 

After a record-breaking season that demonstrated North Carolinians’ devotion to hockey, the diverse UNC club hockey team will look forward with hopes of a Division I future.

Edited by Harrison Clark and Noah Monroe

Despite four surgeries, UNC women’s lacrosse player stays ‘spunky and fun’

By Lindsey Ware 

Blue and white confetti surrounded Katie Thompson as she cried and smiled so hard that it gave her a headache. Chills ran up her arms in a moment that, even then, she knew would forever be ingrained in her memory.

UNC women’s lacrosse completed an undefeated 2022 season with a slim 12-11 national championship win over Boston College, and junior midfielder Thompson got to be a part of it.

“Be where your feet are,” Thompson reminded herself. North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy told the team this often to encourage them to be in the moment, and this was a moment that Thompson wanted to be fully present for.

Thompson said the national championship win was the happiest day of her life and got 2022 tattooed in Roman numerals on her ribs to commemorate the accomplishment. Everyone on the team was dedicated to the greater good that postseason. The championship title was not only the cherry on top of a perfect season, but it was also well-deserved.

Thompson didn’t appear in the national championship game due to constant knee pain that originated from an ACL tear. Thompson’s original injury has continued to haunt her and has forced her to hang up her cleats earlier than she ever expected or hoped.

A tattoo in black Roman numerals spelling out "MMXXII" signifying the year “2022” is shown on Katie Thompson’s ribs.
Thompson shows off the tattoo on her ribs, which serves as a reminder of the national championship win.

‘No, I’m Going to Carolina’

Thompson was raised in Ellicott City, Maryland, the youngest of three daughters. Her oldest sister, Tori, played lacrosse at the University of Connecticut.

At first, Thompson was not a fan of lacrosse and preferred her time on the soccer field, but she was determined to learn to love the sport so that she could be like her big sister.

She eventually learned to love it and had a plan of where she wanted to play from day one — North Carolina.

“I told my coach I wanted to go to Carolina, and she said, ‘They usually recruit tall, blonde people, so pick somewhere else,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘No, I’m going to Carolina.’”

Thompson, a brunette, stands at a mere 5’2 — or 5’3 in her cleats. Her club coach Tierney Ahearn called North Carolina “a reach school” but was proven wrong in the weeks leading up to Thompson’s first year of high school.

It was Thompson’s lucky day when she found a $5 bill on the walk back to her car after a club lacrosse tournament. While admiring her luck, she received a call from Ahearn, despite having seen her just moments earlier.

Ahearn told her that UNC coaches were at the game she had just played and would be in contact soon. By October, Thompson had committed to North Carolina before ever playing a high school lacrosse game or even trying out for the high school team.

Two and a half years later, tragedy struck.

Katie Thompson is looking at Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill wearing her blue UNC lacrosse jersey while holding her pair of blue and neon yellow Nike cleats over her shoulder.
Thompson carries her cleats over her shoulder as she looks out over Dorrance Field. Her time on the field has been limited due to injuries.

‘I would come home and just cry’

It was May 14, 2018, Thompson’s 17th birthday and the saddest day of her life. She was playing attacker in a quarterfinal lacrosse game for Marriotts Ridge High School. The junior was thriving in her birthday performance, racking up three goals. She was told to defend an opponent, as she was the only one who could keep up with her speed. Thompson jogged over, slipped, and tore her ACL.

“It happened,” she called out in between her screams.

Up to 200,000 Americans tear their ACL each year, many while playing a sport. In a life centered around athletics, Thompson wasn’t shocked that it had happened to her.

After surgery and a year of recovery, Thompson was cleared to return to lacrosse soon before arriving at UNC, but she didn’t stay healthy long.

During a midseason practice in her first year of college, Thompson jumped to grab a poorly-thrown ball, and when she landed, her knee did not feel right. Ignoring the feeling, she turned around to keep running but realized she couldn’t.

The surgeon who repaired Thompson’s ACL assured her that even though she had now torn her PCL and ACL and would need another surgery, it would strengthen her knee, so there was no need to worry.

Thompson’s freshman year was cut short due to the pandemic, but it awarded her time to heal and an extra year of athletic eligibility at UNC.

“When I found out I had a COVID year, I was like, ‘I’m staying,’” Thompson said. “We have an extra year of college. That’s everyone’s dream.”

Now, her mentality has changed. Thompson will graduate this May instead of remaining at North Carolina for the extra year of eligibility. She has no choice, she said. She physically can’t play another year. In fact, she might not physically be able to play this year.

Thompson’s second surgery resulted in minimal pain during her sophomore year which elevated to daily pain junior year.

“I would come home from practice and just cry a lot of times because I was in so much pain,” Thompson said. “I was scared to acknowledge it.”

By the fall of 2022, Thompson could no longer straighten her leg due to a golf ball-sized cyst in her knee. In a third surgery, she got the cyst removed and was determined to be ready for the spring season.

Then, after winter break, something popped while she was walking. An MRI confirmed that Thompson had popped off cartilage in her knee, which caused her bones to hit together.

She would need a fourth surgery.

Deep scars from multiple knee injuries can be seen on the knee of UNC women's lacrosse player Katie Thompson.
Thompson’s surgery scars are evident on her knee, which is swollen more often than not. Up to 200,000 Americans tear their ACL each year, many while playing a sport.

‘There’s more to life than lacrosse’

Thompson has yet to get the fourth surgery and has yet to play this season as a result of the injury. Despite her lack of playing time, Thompson’s impact on her team does not go unnoticed.

Her teammates describe her as spunky and fun, even on hard rehab days. It speaks volumes to them that she continues to show up every day and motivate her team. Through her injury, Thompson has taught her teammates to find an identity outside of lacrosse but also to value what lacrosse has given them.

“You have to realize that the lacrosse aspect might not be there anymore, but she’s taught me that’s not what everything’s about and that’s not your identity,” teammate Elizabeth Hillman said. “She’s the farthest thing from weak. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”

Thompson, Levy, and UNC women’s lacrosse athletic trainer Shannon Murphy have discussed the possibility of Thompson medically retiring this year. In her nine years as an athletic trainer, Murphy has had to help at least one athlete a year make the decision to retire due to repeated injury.

Murphy has aided Thompson in her physical and mental healing as they work to determine what her life will look like after lacrosse. Thompson might medically retire midseason and returning for her extra year of eligibility is already completely off the table, but it has not been an easy decision.

“I was thinking I’m not gonna watch myself, I’m not gonna prepare for film anymore, I’m not gonna play,” Thompson said. “It kind of broke my heart.”

Even with the heartbreak of leaving her athletic career behind, Thompson knows that she does not want to spend the rest of her life in pain. She hopes to be able to play lacrosse with her future children and go on walks without pain.

For both her physical and mental health, Thompson cannot return for her extra year of eligibility. However, she secretly holds out hope that she will be able to hit the field this season to say farewell to the sport before retiring and getting a fourth surgery.

“It’s made me realize that there’s more to life than lacrosse, but it’s definitely been hard,” Thompson said. “I take it day by day and search for the positive parts and try to be where my feet are.”

Katie Thompson is in the UNC women’s lacrosse locker room amongst a row of white lockers smiling and laughing during a conversation with her teammate Bailey Horne, who is unseen in the photo.
Thompson laughs during a conversation with teammate Bailey Horne. Thompson’s teammates describe her as spunky and fun, even on hard rehab days.

Edited by Noah Monroe and Harrison Clark

Chapel Hill resident educates community on native plant species

By Anna Connors 

Jerilyn Maclean arranges dozens of native plants on a folding table outside Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In front, she props handwritten signs with the name of each plant and how to care for it. When someone stops by her table, she explains how native plants changed her life. She hopes she might convince them to buy one.

Maclean didn’t know her passion would touch the lives of hundreds of her neighbors in two short years.

“Jerilyn has changed my life,” said Kathleen Southworth, a neighbor of Maclean. “Nature is coming back to my yard. And it’s all because of her.”

Maclean is the founder of the Briar Chapel Native Plant Club, a neighborhood organization with more than 500 members. Every Saturday morning between March and June, she sells plants in the parking lot of Woods Charter. 

Almost every other day of the week, she can be found gardening in her yard and in the park behind her house, offering advice to neighbors, fighting for change in her neighborhood’s landscaping practices and giving talks about native plants. Maclean is on a mission to prevent the extinction of native species — one plant at a time. 

Gardening was not always the focus of Maclean’s life. In her hometown of Napa, California, she began her career in accounting. 

But in 2014, with four kids between the ages of 5 and 11, Maclean was diagnosed with a chronic illness. The doctor’s prognosis was bleak. Her illness was incurable.

Maclean’s garden became her escape. Outdoors, with her hands and feet caked in dirt, she felt at home.

The more she planted, the more her backyard filled with life. Hummingbirds began to feed on the coral honeysuckle by her back fence. Monarch caterpillars crawled up stems of milkweed. Snakes slithered through blankets of woodland phlox. Bees buzzed around blossoms of coneflower.

“If you plant, wildlife will come,” Maclean said. “Every plant makes a difference.”

Maclean began posting images of her yard in neighborhood forums like Nextdoor. And her neighbors began to notice.

In the fall of 2021, Amy Coughlin, Maclean’s neighbor and owner of Breakaway Cafe, asked Maclean if she wanted to sell her plants outside Breakaway. Those plant sales helped spread the word about Maclean’s business.

“She got a lot of attention, and she had a lot of opportunities to promote the importance of native plant sales,” Coughlin said. “Customers and patrons really, really liked it.” 

Soon, Maclean had customers driving in from Cary, Apex and High Point to buy her plants. Not everyone, however, was happy about Maclean’s burgeoning business. 

The Briar Chapel Homeowners Association protested Maclean’s unruly yard — saying her wild greenery was too messy. A tenant next to Breakaway Cafe complained to the complex’s landlord about Maclean’s Saturday plant sales, forcing her to move her sales elsewhere. When Maclean asked her HOA if she could hold her sale in Briar Chapel, they refused.

Maclean didn’t give up. 

Briar Chapel is a suburban sprawl of 2,000 identical row houses. It prides itself on green grass and perfectly pruned trees. The manicured look comes with a price.

Maclean said the Briar Chapel HOA spends $150,000 per year on pine needles alone, which are used to cover empty garden beds surrounding non-native trees. Sod, the neighborhood’s grass of choice, requires constant watering in the summer. Hired landscapers blow leaves on the medians and sidewalks three times a week.

“They want an old-fashioned, colonial look,” Maclean said. “Even if it means the extinction of our butterflies, bees, birds, moths, fireflies, amphibians.”

Nearly one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, some within decades, according to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

With estimates of private land ownership in the United States as high as 78%, Maclean says the onus falls on private landowners to make a difference.

The American fascination with manicured lawns dates back to the 1600s. A New York Times video “The Great American Lawn” explains that, as European farm animals ate through native grasses, foreign seeds were imported to replace native grasses. Green lawns became a symbol of wealth and status — a symbol that continues today.

Maclean said the American ideal of a manicured lawn needs to change.

“Five years ago, there were butterflies all over my yard every day,” Maclean said. “And now I see fewer and fewer, even with all the food that’s available to them. Do people care about that? How much do you care? Do you care more about having your four little round shrubs and your sod? Or do you care more about the future of the planet, for your children and grandchildren?”

Maclean’s yard is small, no more than 1,000 square feet. Every inch is covered with native plants. Bee balm, golden alexander and coreopsis — now dormant for the winter — run along her front sidewalk. On either side of her house crawl tangles of mountain mint and goldenrod. In the back, framed by a white fence, lies a patchwork of potted plants, their leaves only just starting to peek through the soil. Come spring, Maclean’s yard will be teeming with life.

On a cold day in early February, Maclean walks through her garden, pulling out the occasional weed and admiring the baby leaves of her plants poking through the soil. Spring is on its way, Maclean said, and this year will be her biggest year yet. She’s ordered 1,400 milkweed plants from a local nursery, fronting the cost out of her personal bank account. Her backyard is brimming with hundreds more potted plants she’s cultivated over the winter in preparation for her spring sales.

In the last two years, Maclean has sold more than 5,000 native plants, she estimated. She’s given away hundreds more to those who can’t afford them.

Soon, Maclean plans to announce her newest initiative: the Briar Chapel Pollinator Pledge. She hopes to commit 10% of the neighborhood — 250 houses — to planting community gardens of native plants.

The difference she’s made is tangible, her neighbors said.

“What Jerilyn has done is educate so many neighbors like me who had the same mission and goals, we just didn’t know how to get there,” said Rhonda Jones, Maclean’s neighbor and member of the Briar Chapel Native Plant Club. “I probably have a hundred different species now… that I’ve bought from [Jerilyn]. I haven’t been back to a garden center in two years. And I see my little plot of land flourishing.” 

But Maclean doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to keep selling her plants. With four kids and her aging mother all living in Maclean’s house, the bills are piling up — and her plants can’t always pay them.

“I have a grand idea in my head,” Maclean said, her eyes glassy as she gazed toward the community garden behind her house. “But I don’t know how to get there.”

Maclean’s dream is to find an investor to back her work. If someone could fund salaries for a team of three to five people, Maclean said her team could give talks about native plants and work with local organizations to help them develop plans to make their land more sustainable.

“If we could report on what we’re doing around the Triangle, we’d have HOAs calling us and asking us to help save on their maintenance costs, help with runoff and erosion and help bring butterflies and bees and birds back to neighborhoods,” Maclean said.

“Plant by plant, yard by yard,” Maclean tells people. “They won’t go extinct unless we let them.”

Edited by Anna Neil and Noah Monroe