Rested UNC ready to play

It’s been a longer wait than usual for the North Carolina women’s soccer team, but coach Anson Dorrance isn’t complaining.

After losing their first-ever ACC tournament game against Florida State on Oct. 30, the Tar Heels have had nearly two weeks to prepare themselves for the upcoming NCAA tournament.

And on Saturday, the rejuvenated No.3-seeded Tar Heels will have the chance to show the fruits of that labor in the first-round game against visiting William and Mary.

“We’ve never had this opportunity to train for an extended period before the NCAA tournament,” Dorrance said. “So it’s allowed us to get a bit healthier and a bit fitter.”

The team has battled injuries throughout much of the season, especially on the defensive end. Defenders Meg Morris, Satara Murray and Rachel Wood have each dealt with various ailments and are still hurting.

But Dorrance said the team as a whole has come to practice healthier, and after four overtime losses this season, efforts have been made to ensure that the team is physically ready to handle 90 minutes or more of playing time.

“We’ve got to get fitter,” Dorrance said. “You can’t play our system in either shape — the 4-2-3-1 or the 3-4-3 — unless your kids are committed to working hard, and I think that’s been one of the biggest issues for us.”

The coach has led a “killer fitness day” each week since the loss to Florida State. Those intensive practices have included sprints between cones, 120-yard runs down the length of the pitch and relay races that the players have called “Ricky Bobby’s” in honor of Will Ferrell’s NASCAR-driving character in “Talladega Nights.”

The team has also worked extensively on finishing, which is an issue that has plagued UNC of late. In the 1-0 loss to Florida State, for instance, only three of the team’s 18 shots were on goal.

“It’s really frustrating for us,” senior forward Courtney Jones said. “We work on it every day, and it’s not so much that we’re doing things wrong. I think it’s more of a confidence issue … But we’ve been doing extra finishing after every practice, anything we can do to get more repetitions and make it automatic.”

Jones and fellow team captain Amber Brooks have both been a part of championship teams at UNC, and both have made sure to instill a winning mindset in the team’s younger players as many of them prepare to enter their first NCAA tournament.

“If you lose, there’s no tomorrow,” Brooks said. “So we kind of want to highlight that and make sure they know how important that is. But at the same time, you don’t want to put too much pressure on them and have them feel like it’s all on them.”

Even after the early exit in the ACC tournament, Dorrance said he’s been impressed with team’s high morale. And while the 20-time NCAA champions won’t be entering the tournament as favorites this year, they’re using that underdog status as motivation.

“Everyone’s sort of written us off,” Jones said. “And honestly, we love it because we know how good we are … Our job right now is basically to go into the NCAA and ruin it for everyone else and show them the team that we really are.”

And Jones believes her team is ready to do that.

“We’ve lost games that we shouldn’t have lost,” Jones said. “So we’re going into this full throttle, not underestimating anyone, just trying to go out there and kick some ass.”

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