PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

The Many Talents of North Carolina Goalie Taylor Moreno


Before Taylor Moreno steps out onto the University of North Carolina’s Dorrance Field for warmups, she pauses in front of a mural at the far end of the home tunnel. The white wall is a few feet larger than the six-by-six goal she guards during games. The enlarged eyes of Rameses — UNC’s mascot — stare back at her behind the three words “WE GET TO” in bold Carolina blue.

Like her teammates, Moreno pats the mural as part of a pregame ritual. The redshirt senior from Huntington, N.Y., however, placed a hand on it before anyone else and can describe the display in minute detail. She painted it.

“It’s all you, kid,” UNC and U.S. national team coach Jenny Levy told her two-time All-American goalie after collaborating on the idea before last season. “You have a whole wall. Go at it.”

“Taylor executed it like only Taylor can,” added Levy, who has a painting from Moreno of the team’s celebration after the 2019 ACC championship hanging in her office.

Moreno has earned the trust of her coaches and teammates alike in Chapel Hill with artistic talent off the field and her ability to turn into a brick wall on it.

“Through her career, she’s become increasingly confident and instilled that in the players around her,” said Katie Hoeg, the Tar Heels’ all-time leading scorer.

Moreno holds the second-best save percentage (.584 ) and goals against average (5.83) in Division I this spring. She also designed the “Equality” warmup shirts, which embody the social justice ideals of the team that so far this season has few equals.

By the time the paint dries on its 2021 campaign, No. 1 North Carolina (14-0) has the potential to enter the arena of all-time greats. The team that returned every one of its starters matched its perfect start from a year ago and had a nearly identical scoring margin after seven games and has remained undefeated.

“They have no weakness, literally none,” ACC Network analyst Dana Boyle said during the first half of UNC’s first away game of 2021, a 22-1 win over Virginia Tech.

While the No. 7 scoring offense led by Hoeg and fellow 2020 Inside Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year Jamie Ortega has shown few signs of slowing down, the Tar Heels’ No. 2 scoring defense has proven equally intimidating. Anchored by Emma Trenchard — US Lacrosse Magazine’s 2021 Preseason Defender of the Year — Catie Woodruff and Caroline Wakefield, North Carolina has held all its opponents, except one, to single digits. Notre Dame mustered 10 goals.

Moreno buoys the unit. Through 709 minutes of play this season, she’s made 97 saves and allowed just 69 goals. It almost sounds perfect. Still, her process to get to this point was far from seamless.

“She’s had quite a journey, but she’s way more mature in her preparation and approach to the game,” Levy said. “It takes her play to a whole other level.”


“She’s had quite a journey, but she’s way more mature in her preparation and approach to the game. It takes her play to a whole other level.” — Jenny Levy


***

In 2018, Moreno found herself in a position she never even imagined: starting at UNC. Despite being the second-ranked goalie in her class, according to Inside Lacrosse, she never got the opportunity to start at Huntington High School.

Moreno first played middie growing up because she could run up and down the field without getting tired. Playing PAL in sixth grade, she volunteered to step into the crease. The biggest selling point? The equipment.

“This is going to be the closest thing I get to playing football,” Moreno thought. She spent Sundays posted up on the couch next to her dad, Michael, watching the NFL. She “literally lived” in a white New York Jets Chad Pennington jersey. (Moreno eventually changed her allegiance to the Giants, she said, once she was old enough to realize how bad the Jets were.)

“It was my dream sport,” she said.

Moreno went on to become the first girl to play on the Huntington varsity football team, when she suited up as a kicker. Her braided ponytail flapped behind her every time she attempted an extra point. She went 13-for-13.

“She can do whatever she wants to do,” Huntington girls’ soccer coach John Walsh told the Long Islander News in 2016.

Moreno earned Suffolk Large School Goalkeeper of the Year honors. Twice. Her junior year, she decided to join the indoor track team as a way to stay in shape for lacrosse. She won the Suffolk Division II long jump championship. She earned a black belt in taekwondo in eighth grade. She credits the training, half-jokingly, for any of her last-second kick saves.

Moreno’s athletic style in and out of the goal was what first jumped out to Levy and her staff at the IWLCA Presidents Cup in Florida, where Moreno played with Team Elevate. Though the Tar Heels weren’t looking for a goalie in Moreno’s class at the time, she decided to visit anyway after a helpful nudge from Hoeg.

“I was taking a gamble on myself,” Moreno said.








Moreno redshirted her freshman year after she tore her left ACL and medial meniscus in fall ball. It was the second time she tore the same ACL within a year.

Moreno split halves with Elise Hennessey early in 2018 but made 17 saves against Virginia in her first career start. She re-injured her meniscus and missed five games, but she returned in time to help lift the Tar Heels to their third consecutive ACC championship. She put together an MVP performance with a tournament-record 33 saves.

Despite the early success and a trip to the final four near her hometown at Stony Brook’s LaValle Stadium, Moreno struggled to wrap her head around the new role and everything that came with it.

“I had no idea how to handle starting,” she admitted three years to the date of her first collegiate start during a Zoom interview. “It was not in my toolkit.”

“The more experience we could get her on the field, the more she understood, ‘I belong here,’” Levy said. “That was the first step.”

Before Moreno became a picture of composure between the pipes, she considered giving up playing altogether. During the 2019 season, she said she was mad at everything and everyone. She’s not sure why. She described it as a bad head space. Although she ranked seventh in the nation in goal-against average (8.03) and led UNC to another final four appearance, every goal she let in stung a little more than the last. People noticed.

“I definitely used to let my emotions completely take over, sometimes in a bad way,” Moreno said. “I would get frustrated. I would get mad. I would start outwardly yelling. It was not beneficial to me or especially to my teammates.”

Moreno sought out Trenchard for her unvarnished opinion.

“She told me how it was,” Moreno said. “I needed to hear everything she said.”

Trenchard told Moreno that the attitude she projected on the field carried over to the rest of the unit. They needed her to be their rock. Moreno realized she had more influence than she previously thought. It was a turning point.

The university’s sports psychology department also served as a resource for Moreno to assess and reframe her outlook. Whenever Moreno finds herself getting anxious or overly excited in the lead up to a game, she closes her eyes. She visualizes how she wants the game to look and feel. Staying patient. Seeing the ball.

“Her head space now and her ability to lift people up even when she’s down on the day is admirable,” said fifth-year senior defender and three-time captain Maddie Hoffer, who has witnessed Moreno’s maturation up close on their drives home from practice.

Moreno started writing “Control What You Can Control” in Sharpie on her left wrist tape before games in 2018. She doesn’t need the reminder anymore. “I’ve accepted it as a mentality,” she said.




PHOTO BY CAMRYN HUTCHENS / UNC ATHLETICS

The "Equality" shirts that Taylor Moreno designed. From left to right: Moreno, Ally Mastroianni, Kayla Wood.


***

Before USC graduate transfer Kerrigan Miller ever donned a UNC jersey, Moreno had a good idea of what that would look like.

This past fall, the Tar Heels’ training staff asked Moreno if she wanted to make a binder cover featuring all of the grad year players. One problem. There were no photos of Miller, a two-time Pac-12 Midfielder of the Year, or Katie Bourque, a former captain at Dartmouth, playing for UNC.

The director of graphic design for the student-athlete storytelling platform UNCUT Chapel Hill, Moreno smoothed out the discrepancy after hours experimenting on the graphics editor Adobe Photoshop. The end product features a collage of action shots. “UNC Women’s Lacrosse Sports Medicine,” the graphic reads. “Keepin’ These Grannies Going.” Positioned on Moreno’s left, Miller doesn’t look out of place.

“Definitely could have done better,” Moreno still said, appraising her first “jersey swap” attempt. “I’m a perfectionist when it comes to a lot of my stuff. If something doesn’t look right to me, it really bothers me. I need to fix it.”

Perfection is a fleeting feeling for goalies. Although Moreno wants to let in as few goals as possible, she’s learned not to let them linger. It’s what she does next that she can control.

“You just have to accept it then flush it down the toilet and move onto the next one,” she said.

Take UNC’s season opener against Stony Brook. The Sea Wolves scored three straight goals to start the second half and cut UNC’s lead to 9-7. Moreno stayed in the game. She stayed focused on the next shot. UNC held Stony Brook scoreless for the final 23 minutes and 38 seconds to seal a 14-7 win.

Moreno’s 10 saves earned her ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors. She’s received the distinction two more times this season. Her attention to detail and unwillingness to settle for average extends to all facets of her life.

“If you look at her car, it’s meticulous,” Hoffer said. “The way she prepares her food is very specific. There’s a method behind everything she does, including her art.”

Creativity runs in Moreno’s family. Her younger sister, Theresa, attends the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. So did their mom. In 2008, Terry Moreno founded TTR Concepts & Design and specializes in murals and custom greeting cards that feature realistic hand drawn caricature portraits.

“Anytime anybody in the town of Huntington needs something artistic,” Taylor Moreno said, “they usually go to my mom.”

Moreno has carved out a similar role in Chapel Hill. It started with painting shoes in high school, which turned into a full side project at UNC. When Jamie Ortega set the Tar Heels’ goals record, Moreno created an intricate, layered graphic to celebrate the occasion. Her portraits that she first grids out in Photoshop then often finishes with oil paint on canvas have a pop art feel. She made one for North Carolina men’s lacrosse defenseman Will Bowen that he gave to his mother for Christmas. In 2019, Moreno presented her four housemates on the team with portraits of themselves and a word that best defined them. Hoeg’s was “passionate.” Moreno picked “perseverance” for herself.

Besides the thrill Moreno experiences presenting her work, art offers a release. Time slows down while she’s immersed in the process. “The feeling of calm while I’m doing art is something that I can recognize when I’m playing as well,” she said.

During a Zoom call over winter break, the UNC women’s lacrosse team brainstormed concepts about how best to represent what was important to them on their warm-up shirts. Moreno wrote down everyone’s ideas. She had a feeling.

“Taylor, were you taking notes?” Levy asked her at the end of the meeting.

“Yep,” Moreno recalled with a laugh. “I was.”

On the front of the shirts, the word Equality is formed by phrases like “Women’s Rights,” “LGBTQ+” and “Black Lives Matter.”

The idea for the mural spawned from a speech Matt “Dezy” DiStefano gave to the team in early 2020. A fervent UNC fan who coached Hoffer in volleyball at Sachem North (N.Y.) High School, DiStefano was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic kidney cancer in February 2019. In the face of the disease, he tried to inspire others and emphasized the importance of a positive mindset. “We Get To” was his mantra.

DiStefano’s speech moved the team to tears. The Tar Heels adopted the three words as their motto for 2020. Although DiStefano lost his battle with cancer before the season started, those three words live on. Levy said the motto will probably be with the team “forever.”

“It reminds each and every one of us to be extra grateful to be in a Carolina uniform and simply be present and have the day because not everyone is here for it,” said Hoffer, who suggested adding “We Get To” to the mural.

Between classes and practices, it took Moreno about a full week to complete. Hoffer and Jill Shippee, an ACC champion thrower on the UNC track team from Clifton Park, N.Y., both lent a hand in the final stages so it would be ready in time for the lacrosse team’s 2020 home opener on Feb. 16 against Davidson. The trio sat in the Tar Heels’ locker room and watched the Justin Bieber YouTube documentary “Seasons” to pass the time while they waited for the paint to dry.

Moreno intended to make a few touch-ups later that spring. The pandemic changed those plans, like everything else. But when Moreno returned to Chapel Hill, her perspective about her largest and most visible piece of work changed, too. She knows she’s probably the only one who can see the imperfections.

“The more I look at it, the more I think,” Moreno said. “I probably don’t need to do anything else to it.”