CARY — When the North Carolina women’s soccer scores first, everything suddenly begins to fall into place.
In the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Colorado on Friday night, the team tipped the odds in its favor with an early goal on the way to a 1-0 shutout win.
The 17-2-2 Tar Heels are 15-1 this year in games when they strike first blood. Their only loss came in the second game of the season, when the team fell to Central Florida, 2-1, in overtime after scoring in the third minute of the game. Since then, an early score has been a pretty good indication of what kind of performance the team will have—and that trend continued on Friday over the Buffaloes (12-6-4).
“We are thrilled to be in the third round,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I thought we did some really good things in the first half. I thought we really established who we were and of course, we got the goal.”
Teams across the country always look to score early and often, but Dorrance’s offensive attack sets his program up for plenty of opportunities to light up the scoreboard first in every game. The aggression in the opening minutes on Friday poked and prodded the Buffalo defense, leading to an early shot in the third minute from first-year Alessia Russo that tailed wide.
North Carolina held an 11-3 shot advantage in the first half, which eventually produced the game winner in the 26th minute of the game.
Bridgette Andrzejewski found herself deep in the box, right where she needed to be to score. On the game-winning play, Lotte Wubben-Moy crossed the ball into the box and Sydney Spruill tried to settle it and redirect it home. When the ball came clanking back off the hands of the goalie, Andrzejewski returned it to the left corner of the net.
“(Wubben-Moy) had a great cross and Sydney was there,” Andrzejewski said. “The keeper had a great save and I just tapped it in.”
Just as simple as that, the early score took some of the pressure away from the team that comes with close postseason matches. But the score wouldn’t be the only shot that had a chance to become a goal. The Tar Heels would take eight more shots in the second half and finish the game with eight shots on goal. The Buffaloes also nearly had a few scores of their own.
In the final minutes of the game, Colorado tried to lob the ball over the top of UNC goalie Samantha Leshnak to bring the game back into reach. The defense scrambled and needed to rely on the keeper to punch away potential goals with her fist. She finished a career night with three saves on 11 shots — and now has allowed only 10 goals and boasts 46 saves in 147 shots faced this season.
“We were in full panic mode which isn’t good,” Dorrance said of the final minutes. “Yeah, they didn’t get the ball in the back of the net, but we’ve got to do a better job on our end game.”
Late-game pushes by the opponent make early goals even more important. Even when the defense looked like it could fall apart in the final ten minutes, the difference of one goal kept the team from being in jeopardy of losing the close game. A mistake wouldn’t cost the game on defense, but would only allow Colorado to crawl back into it.
“I love my defense,” Leshnak said. “I try to tell them everything they can’t see and they clean up my messes. I think we are a great team.”
That’s part of what it means to be a unit. On some nights, the offense will need the defense to keep the game close and on others, the defense can fall back upon the goalie and the insurance of a goal in the first half. It took the efforts of the whole team to work together so they could survive and advance.
On Sunday at 1 p.m., the Tar Heels will face Princeton in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. No matter what, it will be their last game of the year played in North Carolina.
“We are watching film on them tomorrow, so we’ll definitely get to know better about how they play,” Andrzejewski said. “I mean just seeing them play it will be a good game. They aren’t ranked high, but this is the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to bring their 100 percent.”
With each game, the stakes become higher, but the team is proving right now that it can pull together a team win.