Brittney Coppa’s junior year at North Carolina ended perfectly.

In triple overtime of the 2013 women’s lacrosse national championship, she assisted Sammy Jo Tracy for the goal that edged Maryland, 13-12, and gave the Tar Heels their first title.

What a way for the seniors to end their four years. Eight months later, Coppa thought it might be a fitting end to her career too.

A couple of weeks before the first game of her senior year, Coppa eagerly took the field for an exhibition game between the Tar Heels and the U.S. national team. Only two minutes had passed when she went for a loose ball, planting her left foot so she could scoop it up in front of her, but the ball took an unexpected jag to the right. When her body turned right, her lower leg did not.

“I knew as soon as I fell that I tore my ACL,” the North Carroll graduate said. “When the trainer came over, I started crying. It hurt, but it wasn’t the pain — that was my senior year and now I had no clue what the future held for me. I immediately knew my year had changed drastically.”

Instead of thinking about playing for another national championship with her senior classmates, Coppa faced surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and months of rehab. It took a while for the shock to wear off.

“At one point, I wasn’t positive that I was going to come back to Carolina,” she said. “We did so much in 2013. We won the first national championship the program’s ever had, so I didn’t know if coming back and putting my life on hold for another year was worth it. I had made the memories, I had won the national championship, I had the friends, I had everything anyone could ask for and I wasn’t sure if it was time to let go and move on with my life and start to grow up in the real world.”

That “one point” lasted a while. Coppa spent weeks seeking advice. She even had a conversation in an airport with a woman she didn’t know.

“She said I needed to stay and that the real world will always be there and that stuck with me,” Coppa said.

Tar Heels freshman goalie Caylee Waters also gave Coppa advice that made her think. She said that Coppa was a fighter, always advocating to battle through anything. She even had “Forever a fighter” tattooed above her collarbone. Waters, Coppa remembers, told her — in a nice way — that she would be a hypocrite if she didn’t return.

Coming back wasn’t just about me anymore, it was coming back for the team and being part of the program for another year, because it’s a family here. They were there for me at one of the lowest points in my life when I got hurt, and it felt only right that I come back.
— Brittney Coppa

As her decision deadline drew closer, Coppa wrote pros and cons lists with her roommate Cassie Ballard almost every day. She talked to her mother on the phone nearly every day. She asked her friends, teammates and coaches. She weighed every tiny consideration.

“She just didn’t want to make the wrong decision,” Ballard said. “We told her we couldn’t make the decision for her, just to follow her gut and there really is no right or wrong and whatever she decided, everything would work out the way it was supposed to be.”

Coppa opted for a medical redshirt so she could return to play this season, just as nearly everyone close to her suspected. It helped that she had no specific plans for after graduation and that she carried a light academic load last spring, so she could take more undergraduate classes. She delayed graduation for a year and spent last summer in Chapel Hill rehabilitating with the same intensity she brings to the lacrosse field.

It would be hard to say which Coppa loves more, lacrosse or North Carolina. She grew up idolizing alumna Mia Hamm, and when Coppa switched from soccer to lacrosse she stayed true to the Tar Heels. In the fifth grade, she sent an email to coach Jenny Levy, saying it was her dream to play lacrosse at North Carolina.

While assessing her options after surgery, she realized how much she missed lacrosse and how much she would miss Carolina if she left.

“Coming back wasn’t just about me anymore, it was coming back for the team and being part of the program for another year, because it’s a family here,” Coppa said. “They were there for me at one of the lowest points in my life when I got hurt, and it felt only right that I come back. It wasn’t an easy decision, but when I told my team that I was going to come back, I couldn’t imagine the situation in reverse.”

Long before the first game back — a 13-9 win against James Madison on Feb. 1 — Coppa knew she had made the right decision, but it didn’t hurt that she scored North Carolina’s first goal of the season. As the No. 2 Tar Heels prepare to play at No. 1 Maryland on Saturday at noon, she ranks second on the team in scoring with eight goals and one assist and second in draw controls with nine.

Coppa, a preseason Inside Lacrosse All-American, said the knee doesn’t feel the same as it used to, but it’s perfectly stable and she’s not worried about it.

“I refuse to let my injury define me as a player this whole season, so whatever happens is going to happen and there’s nothing I can do to control that,” she said. “I like to just go out every day with a positive attitude and be ready to go hard. If something does happen, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m going to enjoy the time I have on the field.”

Known for her relentless drive, she’s determined to play as hard as she always has whether it’s going to goal or chasing down a loose ball. With six other Tar Heels also coming back from injuries, Coppa knows her leadership on and off the field will be needed to remix the Tar Heels midfield.

Levy, who recruited Coppa off the Skywalkers club team, said the exact attributes that made Coppa a top player brought her back to the field in top shape.

“There’s not a lot of Brittney Coppas out there,” Levy said. “She’s a really special kid, obviously because of her athletic talent but also her passion and the fearlessness that she plays with, and she backs it up with hard work. She’s a big leader by example.”

Opponents don’t see any weaknesses to exploit either.

“It did not slow her down a bit in my opinion,” Florida coach Amanda O’Leary said after Coppa had four goals and an assist in the Tar Heels’ 17-11 win Feb. 7 against the No. 4 Gators.

“I think she’s the heart and soul of that team. She’s running both ends of the field. The ball is in her stick a lot. Even in the James Madison game, which we watched, a lot of those isolations were for her. We had to put a whole defense in just to try to stop her, because she’s just so strong going to goal.”

This article was written by Katherine Dunn from The Baltimore Sun and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.