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Taylor Moreno’s journey to the Women’s Lacrosse Final Four is one of patience and resilience

UNC’s star goalie didn’t even play a game in high school, and has battled back from three left-knee injuries to get to where she is today.

Taylor Moreno leads all Final Four goalies with a .555 save percentage.

STONY BROOK N.Y. — Taylor Moreno was a Renaissance athlete in her days as a player at Long Island’s Huntington High School. She was an All-County soccer goalie, a great basketball player, a triple-jump champion and even the kicker for the Blue Devils football team. Yes, Moreno’s booming leg from the goal box at soccer practice made quite the impression on the Huntington football staff.

“It started out as a joke then it ended up becoming a real thing,” Moreno, who was Huntington’s first female football player, said. “That whole experience was awesome.”

But amazingly, before playing lacrosse for the North Carolina Tar Heels (a former “Blue Devil” playing in Chapel Hill... ironic, isn’t it?), Moreno never started a high school game.

Moreno’s sophomore and junior seasons, she was caught in a roster logjam behind Anna Tesorero, the current Stony Brook starter. To her chagrin, Moreno hardly saw any playing time in high school because of the circumstances. Neither did Fiona Geier, who’s now the starting goalie at American University.

“She and I just kind of accepted the fact that the way that things were weren’t really going to change,” Moreno recalled. “But I don’t take that experience for granted because I know it definitely turned me into the player I am today. I know what patience is and I know what it means to work your a** off to get where you want to be. “

Even though Moreno didn’t see much high school lacrosse action, head coach Jenny Levy saw enough of her to know she was a player she wanted as a Tar Heel. Levy had recruited Moreno through her club team, Team Elevate, and saw her in Florida at a IWLCA-sponsored event. Inside Lacrosse listed her as the No. 2 incoming freshman goalie in the country.

“As soon as we saw her, we were like, ‘Holy cow, that player’s very special.’,” Levy said in a teleconference earlier in the week.

But while Moreno had aspirations as a star, her left knee — time and time again — has had other ideas. Her high school senior season, she tore her ACL during basketball season. Then as a freshman at North Carolina, she tore her ACL again during fall ball. Moreno was forced to redshirt.

At last, Moreno saw action in goal in this season’s opener — a cold, rainy loss at JMU, whom UNC will face in the semifinals. In relief of Elise Hennessey, Moreno stopped nine of 17 shots on goal. Then two weeks later against Maryland, Moreno came off the bench with an all-world effort down the stretch to beat the Terrapins.

When UNC played Virginia, Moreno finally had the chance to start, and had her best game yet: just nine goals against, versus 17 saves made.

But just as Moreno seemed to make a full comeback, the old nemesis, the left knee, let her down again. Late in the first half against Northwestern, she sat down to the turf holding her left knee. This time, she was lucky though. It wasn’t the ACL, but the meniscus, more specifically, a bucket handle tear in her medial meniscus.

A surgeon cut it out, and after three weeks, Moreno was back on the field again.

“I kind of had to work myself back up,” she said, and she has. After playing the second half of two games, Moreno regained the starter’s role in the ACC Tournament semifinals and has been spectacular. In four playoff games as a starter, she has a .577 save percentage (which would have ranked first among all NCAA goalies this year). Remember, she put up these numbers against other elite, tournament-caliber teams.

“She’s been really great for us and somebody who just consistently sees the ball really well and as a competitor,” Levy said.

For Moreno, a Long Island girl, this weekend’s tournament is extra special, as she’ll have many friends and family members in attendance at Stony Brook University’s LaValle Stadium to watch her play. It’s the same stadium where she watched teams raise NCAA trophies when she was in middle school, the same university at which she was born.

“It gives me butterflies in my stomach thinking about it,” Moreno said.

And throughout the national championship hoopla, what is the UNC goalie most excited about?

“I’m just looking forward to playing on the biggest stage of women’s lacrosse with 34 of my best friends.”